We’ve reached the 91st minute at the Etihad Stadium. The ball falls to the feet of Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus who, with one neat first touch and shimmy, perfectly caresses the ball down low to the left of Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
Manchester City’s worse fears were confirmed in Matchday 5 of the Champions League after their 1-1 draw with Spanish giants Real Madrid.
They had just been knocked out of the group stages for the second successive season.
It was by no means an easy group containing the league champions of England, Spain, Germany and Holland, however, after winning the English Premier League, many expected that City would be able to rise to the challenge and survive into a maiden knockout phase. How wrong they were.
They laboured to a lucky 1-1 draw at home to Dortmund and lost to Madrid at the Bernabeu in a highly entertaining affair thanks to a late goals from Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Back-to-back games against Ajax meant maximum points was a must, but City managed just one as Frank De Boer’s men taught them a lesson at the Amsterdam Arena and City could only salvage a 2-2 stalemate at the Etihad Stadium.
Now, they must win against Dortmund to have any chance of qualifying for the Europa League. These are indeed testing times for City, at least in Europe.
With the way UEFA coefficient points work, City must start shaping up on the continent or face the prospect of being sucked into a vicious cycle. As teams go deeper into the Champions League, they accrue more points.
The more points gathered each season based on European performances, the more chance a team has of being protected in the Champions League group stage draw, as they are placed in a higher pot.
Consistent performers in the elite club competition such as Barcelona, Mancheser United, Chelsea and Bayern Munich are among those in pot one having demonstrated consistency in the competition by virtue of titles won and finals reached etc.
On the other end of the scale, those that constantly under perform will be placed in the lower pots such as three or four where the chances of drawing the “group of death” are much higher.
Man City drew Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villareal in last seasons group of death as well as being in this season’s group of death. If City want to truly become an elite European force, they must start performing in the Champions League.
The fact that they did not have European commitments like Chelsea, for instance, in the latter stages of the season to distract them from their Premier League games was a welcome blessing in disguise, but it is a reality the very top teams have to deal with year-in-year out.
City are yet to be exposed to such demands and responsibilities, and this a huge concern going forward if they can’t even advance from the group stages.
Mancini has done quite a good job in my view in the nearly four years at the helm of one of the continent’s emerging powers. He has delivered trophies and managed the many egos at the club quite well through tough disciplining and strict management, like typical Italian managers.
He has had an endless supply of funds so success is expected, but it is easier said than done. Having developed a core group or spine consisting of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero to rely upon to take the fight up to the other teams when the heat is on, he has perhaps established the most important aspect of a football team, its identity.
Last season’s title winning team was characterised by the flowing, attacking football that slaughtered teams at home and away with an avalanche of attacking options proving to be much too much for many teams, including their greatest rivals and defending champions at the time Manchester United, who were dealt a hammering at Old Trafford in 1-6 loss that was described as a seismic day in English football.
Mancini had created a team that was water-tight at the back and capable of ripping teams to shreds offensively on the break and by playing attractive attacking football. However, the next step in Manchester City’s transformation from Premier League also ran to global powerhouse is to start performing in the Champions League and building its own history in the competition.
Winning it is another matter altogether, but consistently going deep in club football’s most prestigious competition is a precursor to an eventual triumph in the competition as experience and credibility builds.
City can look at Chelsea and see that the West London outfit were in the same situation as City 10 years ago, and with consistent performances in the competition they have a great pedigree now having gained much respect which ultimately played a big hand in their deserved triumph last May.
As much I have been a fan of Mancini in the way he has handled the difficult job in front of him on the blue half of Manchester, his European record does read a sorry tale and does not augur well for City supporters who dream of their team’s name being etched onto the hallowed trophy.
Mancini has a reputation of being somewhat of a Cup specialist having reached the final of the Coppa Italia five seasons in a row from 2004-2008 and having delivered FA Cup glory in 2011 with Manchester City.
Having won four Serie A titles in a row with Internazionale from 2004-2008 and delivering a maiden Premier League title last May with the blue half of Manchester, there is no denying his credentials and quality. However, one of the main reasons for his dismissal at the San Siro was his very poor European record that did not impress owner Massimo Moratti.
With two quarter-final appearances in 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 with Internazionale and two Round of 16 exits in his final two seasons at the helm of the Milanese club, this is a poor record that the Manchester City hierarchy must pay strong attention to.
Back to back group stage exits attests to Mancini’s struggles on the continent, albeit two very difficult groups had to be overcome.
The harsh reality is that if performances in Europe do not improve, then City will continue to draw difficult groups getting sucked into a vicious cycle as punishment for their continental incompetence.
With the squad that is at his disposal, there should have been no excuses second time round this season if inexperience was the reason for the early exit last season.
With the money that has been invested in recent years, failure in the premier club competition is not an option and continued failure will harm City’s attempts to grow and truly establish itself as a major European force, not too mention the humiliation and shame each poor performances brings to the club and its reputation.
In order for that next step to be taken, a bold bid to bring in the likes of a Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho or even a Rafael Benitez or Frank Rijkaard, who have proven European track records, would be a natural succession plan after the foundation work made by Mancini domestically.