Manchester City were nigh on spineless as kick off loomed at the Stadio Olimpico in the Eternal City. Even worse, they would be virtually invisible, as they took on the might of Rome for a place in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Labelled as a ‘one man team’ due to the sensational goal scoring exploits of Sergio Aguero, it was as if the rest of City’s playing staff didn’t even exist in the jaundiced eyes of the English sports media and a posse of putrid pundits.
With Aguero a no-show it would surely be a case of ‘We’re not really here…’ for the rest of those who wore the sky blue shirt – cruelly slated as sub-standard bearers of the Champions of England.
Even if there was more to Manchester City than just the ‘Sergio Show’, they would be without a ‘backbone’ – Yaya Toure was suspended, Vincent Kompany ruled out with injury and a far from fully-fit David Silva consigned to the bench.
This was destined to be an orgy of Roman indulgence, a night where gladiators from a faraway land would be bloodied and smashed into submission, before the baying hordes of Rome.
But behold…Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears for there is a very different tale to tell…one that graphically depicts the Fall of Rome and the Rise of a Blue Moon, elevated from the shadows cast by non-believers, detractors and haters.
When asked to identify the biggest single factor in City’s finest hour in the Champions League, Manuel Pellegrini offered up a one word answer: ‘TRUST’.
It translated into the Chilean’s own self belief and the confidence among his players – players bursting with personal and collective pride that they had passed, what was arguably, City’s sternest test on foreign soil.
The whole club graduated with honours on a night where City may just have come of age at the top table of European football.
Pellegrini described City’s 1-1 draw with Roma at the end of September as City’s ‘…worst game of the whole year.’
The day after the Etihad stalemate, arrogant AS Roma Official had tweeted: ‘Thanks for the hospitality last night @mcfc. Looking forward to seeing you in Rome. You’ve never won a European game in Italy, have you?’
Well, now we all know the answer to that one…don’t we?
In contrast, this 2-0 win was the most professional and pragmatic performance in four, largely underwhelming, campaigns in City’s CL odyssey.
Having over achieved in the CL with Villarreal and Malaga during his time in Spain, Pellegrini, once again showed his pedigree at this level.
A famous victory could be the kick-start to an era where City discard their ‘L’ plates, realise they are no longer novices and set out to fulfil their rich CL potential.
One can only imagine Msr Michel Platini and his UEFA cohorts spitting feathers, as the club they love to hate, overcame the odds.
UEFA’s bully-boys fouled up by appointing Serbian referee Milorad Mazic to officiate because, stone the crows, he was fair and correct…apart from whistling for an innocuous alleged infringement by Dzeko, a nano-second before Navas thought he’d scored a first half opener.
Doubtless City have already been paired with holders Real Madrid in Monday’s Round of 16 draw – heaven forbid City should be given any chance of progressing to the quarter finals . Nonetheless, this was a landmark win.
Pellegrini’s tactics were spot on as City discovered a fully functioning midfield five, who worked their proverbials off for the entire 90 minutes plus.
No passengers, meant City showed the intensity displayed by their hosts, when they visited the Etihad and returned to Rome, believing they had the measure of the men from Manchester.
Clearly not so, as it’s Roma who have to make provision for Thursday night football in 2015 as they drop into the Europa League.
As for the reviled racist Russians of CSKA Moscow, they can leave the gates wide open at their Arena Khimki Stadium. No need to worry about playing behind closed doors…no one’s going to watch the malicious Muscovite miscreants or their thuggish followers in Europe any time soon.
City can now forget their early nightmares in Group E and look forward to a 50% chance of playing in a Spanish spring. If the draw is kind it’ll be Dortmund, Monaco or Porto.
The cynics who believe the CL to be rigged against City – that’ll be 95% of the club’s fans – feel it’s inevitable they’ll be drawn against Real Madrid. Failing that, either last season’s nemesis, Barcelona or the reigning La Liga champions, Atletico Madrid.
It was a first clean sheet in City’s last 13 CL games that provided the foundation for the all-important qualification to the knockout stages.
Joe Hart, given the captain’s armband for the night, pulled off a string of brilliant saves, particularly when tipping away Gervinho’s low drive in the first half, before touching Kostas Manolas’s header onto the post, a minute or so after City had gone one up.
Initially troubled by Roma’s incisive incursions, City’s defence of Demichelis, Mangala, Clichy and Zabaleta stood firm.
Demi, cleared off the line seconds after Roma hit the post as they pushed for an equaliser, and was clearly in his element as City’s elder statesman.
Rookie Mangala is improving and, despite some people doubting his abilities, the French defender will be a fine long–term central defensive partner for Kompany.
Clichy continued his fine form of late and Zaba was typically Zaba, revelling in an environment akin to ancient times, where gladiators fought for survival and glory.
Probably the finest right back in the world, he is back to his best after his World Cup hangover, crowning his performance with City’s second goal on the night and his second in seven days – prolific Pablo!
Born of adversity, Pellegrini may well now have a blueprint for CL success, one based on a formation of 4-5-1, or a slight derivation.
The tireless efforts of Fernandinho and Fernando provided excellent cover for City’s back four, Milner was indefatigable, Navas’ trickery on the flanks was evident and Samir Nasri was, once again outstanding.
His howitzer of a shot on the hour mark, crashed against the inside of De Sanctis’ right post before nestling in the net.
This was Samir in his Arsenal pomp, the Nasri not seen at City as often as the supporters would like…it was magnifique.
City were preparing Silva when Nasri struck gold, with his 50th career goal for his past and present English employers, on the occasion of his 50th CL appearance.
He did so as City’s Silva readied himself for a return from the bench after an eight match absence.
Merlin re-appeared as he replaced Navas in the 67th minute, while Jovetic came on for a still not match fit Dzeko. Kolarov returned to his old Lazio stamping ground to sample the win, as Man of The Match, Nasri, came off to a standing ovation from the 1,500 travelling supporters.
Nasri had scored a 20-yard cracker and provided the assist for Zabaleta, as he swept the ball home in the 86th minute.
High viz, with a strong vertebral column, City will be a spine-chilling prospect for whoever awaits them in the Champions League draw in Nyon on Monday morning.
City – minus talent worth £200m – came through when so many in this country and among Europe’s elite wanted them to fail. Put that negativity down to fear and jealousy.
As for the fans – those decrying Pellegrini before the six-game winning run that has seen City progress in the Champions League and slice Chelsea’s ‘unassailable’ Premier League advantage down to three points – one word…TRUST!
By David Walker
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