With Manchester City still searching for a win in the Champions League group stage this term and three points to remain in contention for a last-16 place on matchday six, Roberto Mancini’s men made a characteristically poor start. Maicon, making just his second start since returning from injury, was tasked with tempering Real Madrid’s danger man Cristiano Ronaldo alongside Pablo Zabaleta. The Brazilian worked under both Mancini and José Mourinho at Internazionale, establishing himself as the best right-back in the world during a silverware-laden spell at the San Siro. Now 31, his best years are over and he was fault for Madrid’s opening goal. In the sixth minute, Ángel Di María’s cross reached the back post, where Karim Benzema had ghosted past Maicon and produced a tidy finish into the roof of Joe Hart’s net. With half-time approaching, he was forced into a cynical foul to deny his chief tormentor Benzema a free fun at Hart’s goal after more sluggish defending. Meanwhile, up front, City were toiling and managed to register just one shot on target in a tame first-half display. When Sergio Aguero finally had a clear sight on Madrid’s goal, he was denied by a world-class save from Iker Casillas, proving once again for City, it’s a case so close but yet so far.
Ronaldo’s record against City was mixed during his six-year spell at Manchester United. The 27-year-old appeared in 11 derbies, winning seven and losing three, scoring four goals but receiving two red cards. However, the Portugal captain showed no signs of being fazed by a vociferous Etihad Stadium with an electric start. In a breathtaking opening 14 minutes, Ronaldo managed to outfox Maicon and Zabaleta to create a chance for Sami Khedira, before luring Vincent Kompany into an unsuccessful challenge and delivering another dangerous cross. Indeed, the former United star had the chance to take his tally to five goals against City when he raced onto Xabi Alonso’s through-ball but was denied by Matija Nastasic’s desperate clearance after lobbing Hart. With City piling forward in search of goals in the second half, Ronaldo was a constant threat on the break, albeit hampered by a perceived lack of support from the Italian officials.
Edin Dzeko’s performances from the bench in both the Premier League and in Europe have warranted a starting spot and the Bosnia-Herzegovina international’s appetite for first-team starts was satisfied against Madrid – arguably City’s biggest game of the season so far. However, Dzeko was off the pace against Los Blancos, with a series of heavy touches, poor combination play and wayward finishing. The 27-year-old, who has scored four as a second-half substitute this season, was preferred to Carlos Tévez for his physical presence but the Citizens missed their controversial striker’s movement and link-up play with compatriot Aguero. City’s best chance of a quiet first half fell to Dzeko, who blazed a straightforward finish wide after good work from David Silva. The former Wolfsburg man often struck an isolated figure, while the introduction of Tévez injected a new lease of life into the home side. Expect Dzeko to drop back to bench for the weekend’s clash against Chelsea.
Mancini played down his rivalry with Mourinho ahead of Wednesday night’s clash, with the City manager saying: “It’s not Mourinho v Mancini: it’s between the players, they are more important than we are”. The pair have a frosty relationship stemming from Mourinho’s treble success at Inter after Mancini was sacked by the San Siro outfit in 2008. And despite the Italian’s protestations, both managers had a big part to play in this clash. City reverted to a back three, with two wing-backs, in an attempt to harness the threat from Di Maria and Ronaldo. But Aleksandar Kolarov failed to prevent the cross which led to Benzema’s opener, with the Frenchman eluding his Brazilian marker. Madrid’s goal was thoroughly deserved and by the time Aguero registered City’s first attempt, the visitors had already racked up a staggering eight shots in 21 minutes. So much for containing the La Liga champions! Mancini’s decision to start Dzeko backfired, with City a much more dangerous proposition once Tévez came on in the second half. Upon reflection, Mancini’s tinkering with tactics and questionable selections have hampered City’s progress this season – lessons will need to be learned for next season.
While City have ultimately continued their awful start to life in the Champions League, falling at the group-stage hurdle in successive seasons, Mancini’s men did show plenty of fight in the second half. It must be pointed out the Citizens are still a developing side, with their gradual progression being encapsulated by FA Cup and Premier League triumphs in 2011 and 2012. While conquering the domestic front may have taken a mere four years, winning Europe’s top club prize is a much tougher task – as Chelsea will testify – and the margins for error are much smaller. It could have all been so different for City if they had held to their slender 2-1 advantage with minutes to play at the Bernabéu. City would have banished any demons from the 2010-11 campaign with a win against the La Liga champions, but since the 3-2 reversal, Mancini’s men have been lethargic and nervous. The City manager admitted their progression was unlikely, but demanded a performance on Wednesday night and the home side came to life in the second half and pegged back Madrid, with Aguero denied by a world-class Casillas save. In the 71st minute, the English champions were finally handed a lifeline when Álvaro Arbeloa was dismissed for a foul on Aguero, with the striker dispatching the spot-kick. City continued to press for a winner deep into added time – Yaya Touré was unable to test Madrid’s keeper from the edge of the area before Tévez failed to make contact with a through ball in the dying moments. The Citizens must now channel their frustrations into becoming just the third side to retain the Premier League crown – history can still be made this season!