Ajax were seeking a first home victory over English opposition since beating Nottingham Forest in 1980, and Frank De Boer’s men made a bright start to their must-win Group D encounter. Earmarked as Ajax’s danger man, Christian Eriksen had the first sight at Joe Hart’s goal when an intricate move resulted in an opening for the young Dane but he fired narrowly wide. The Dutch side passed the ball crisply, in keeping with the four-time European champions’ much-lauded attacking philosophy, and probed City’s rearguard which had managed to keep just one clean sheet this season. Another sustained period of pressure saw Eriksen, whose agent this week claimed it took “10 seconds” for the 21-year-old to reject a move to City this summer, outwit Gareth Barry with an ingenious touch before fizzing the ball past Hart’s left post. De Boer’s men could have easily collapsed when Samir Nasri netted against the run of play, but his side were patient and scored a slick equaliser courtesy of Siem De Jong. If Niklas Moisander’s second-half header was un-Ajax like, then Eriksen capped an influential performance with a superbly struck left-footed shot, albeit aided by a Gaël Clichy deflection.
Despite City seeing just 20 per cent of possession in an impressive opening quarter from the Eredivisie winners, it was Roberto Mancini’s men who took an undeserved lead at the Amsterdam Arena when they finally mustered a shot on Kenneth Vermeer’s goal. With an early advantage to inject much-needed confidence into his side, Mancini’s men appeared set to produce a champions’ performance, digging deep and grinding out a result despite an underwhelming performance. But Ajax were too good. Moisander’s header which put the home side ahead in the 57th minute saw the defender rise highest and guide the ball past Hart. It was an astonishing lapse by City, who despite their aerial presence, have now conceded two sloppy gaols courtesy of their zonal marking system this season after Martin Skrtel netted at Anfield. Of even more concern will be the disappointing displays from key men such as Vincent Kompany and Yaya Touré. The City captain was drawn out of position for Eriksen’s goal, capping a miserable week after his error led to James Milner’s sending off at the Hawthorns. Meanwhile, Ivory Coast star Touré appeared distinctly off the pace for the second successive Champions League game. So often the pivotal piece in the City puzzle, the midfielder failed to keep Ajax’s midfield in check and his lung-bursting runs were noticeably absent.
Fitting of the great Ajax sides of yesteryear, the current crop of stars impressed against England’s best at the Amsterdam Arena. With Ryan Babel, De Jong and Eriksen leading the home side’s front-line, the trio showcased their technical ability in the first half, albeit without really testing the visitors. In fact, it was a damning indictment of City’s performance that this Group D encounter was there for Mancini’s men to win, with the home side lacking a focal point up front. Sitting on the Ajax bench was former Arsenal striker Dennis Bergkamp, acting as De Boer’s assistant, and perhaps his presence inspired belief amongst Ajax’s attackers. His record against City as a Gunners player was played nine, won nine, and he can extend that run to 10 after Wednesday night. De Jong, who netted 17 times last season, was on hand to fire Babel’s cross past Hart in emphatic style. It was a goal fitting of Bergkamp or the club’s other great frontmen such as Johan Cruyff and Patrick Kluivert. But if De Jong possesses Bergkamp’s prolific touch, then Eriksen has the intelligence and invention of the Gunners legend as he stole the spotlight against a hapless City, capped by his 68th-minute goal.
Following a disappointing 1-1 draw with Borussia Dortmund in their last European outing, Mancini was adamant he had identified City’s “problem” in the Champions League. “We did a lot of mistakes. It was very strange for us,” he said three weeks ago, “I know the problem and I will resolve this very quickly”. Judging from a limp performance in Amsterdam, the City manager was merely bluffing, with the defending Premier League champions struggling against a tidy Ajax side. So what are their problems? Firstly, if City harbour any ambitions of winning Europe’s top prize, they must improve away from the Etihad Stadium. Newcomers to the competition last term, City have lost four of their five away games, including a 3-2 defeat by Real Madrid. Secondly, Mancini’s tactics baffle at times, most notably his disastrous 3-5-2 formation which led to some alarming defending against Dortmund and Ajax – Micah Richards admitted after their latest defeat that it’s a system the players are not used to. Such was Mancini’s desperation at 3-1, the Italian threw on Carlos Tévez and Mario Balotelli, with Aguero and Dzeko remaining on the pitch, discarding his tactical systems for an all-out attack approach. Desperation soon turned to disaster with just one point from three games, and City will need nine points from their final group ties if the Citizens are to have any chance of reaching the last-16.
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