A superlative showing from Joe Hart and a sting in the tail from Mario Balotelli kept Manchester City alive in the Group of Death as Borussia Dortmund swarmed all over them in the Champions League.
Three elements emerged from a lopsided contest at the Etihad Stadium; Hart is the best goalkeeper in the world, there’s no better penalty taker on the planet than Balotelli and, sadly, City are nowhere near ready to being acclaimed as Europe’s top club side.
A worrying sense of déjà vu is beginning to envelop City’s CL aspirations as a mirror image of last year’s valiant, but ultimately doomed, campaign unravels.
City have one point after two matches and back-to-back fixtures coming up against the supposed weakest team, Ajax - whereas it was Villarreal in 2011 – before Real Madrid and, what could be a decider away to Dortmund.
On the evidence of last night it is highly plausible that Roberto Mancini’s men could claim 10 points and once again find themselves in third place and the dubious allure of the Europa League beckoning.
There’s lies, damned lies and statistics and with 64% possession and seven out of nine shots on target it might appear that City were very much ‘in’ this match. In truth they weren’t.
Resplendent in yellow and black stripes, Dortmund were as welcome as wasps at a barbeque as they harried a strangely lethargic City, pressing a high line and playing with pace, precision and power.
The hugely impressive Mario Gotze severely tested Hart three times in the first half, with the England keeper tipping two shots onto the woodwork, as well as thwarting the German playmaker one-on-one at close range.
City, despite lacking the speed and invention of their opponents, carved out a handful of credible opportunities with Dortmund stopper Wiedenfeller, twice shutting Aguero out and David Silva smashing an awkward acrobatic shot skywards over the bar.
Dortmund’s presence was as obvious off the pitch as on it, with the travelling masses bouncing in unison in a choreographed display of sound and motion that boomed and bedazzled.
The loss of Javi Garcia to a hamstring injury on the half hour hardly helped to stabilize a jittery City as Jack Rodwell entered the fray. The youngster’s lapse was to prove costly in the second half.
Dortmund were delivering the high octane performance more readily associated with the all-action Premier League, and it was the English champions trying – unsuccessfully – to impose a more languid European tempo on proceedings.
Mancini attempted to bolster City’s vulnerable left flank with Aleksander Kolarov replacing the ineffectual Samir Nasri and switching from a back four to a back three.
Within five minutes an abhorrent Rodwell pass went wayward at the back and the effervescent Marco Reus latched on to the loose ball, finally beating the fantastic Hart. Dortmund ahead and deservedly so.
Fine strikes from Reus and Ilkay Gundogan were repelled by Hart within five minutes of City falling behind. The German supporters behind Hart’s goal were loving it, cheekily taunting City fans with a perfect rendition of ‘You only sing when you’re winning…’ Outrageous!
Still there was no respite. Polish hitman Robert Lewandowski contrived to miss a sitter, hitting a gilt-edged pass from that man Gotze, wide of the post.
With Yaya carrying an injury from early in the half, City were lacking energy, drive and creativity – time for Super Mario and a last hurrah. Clichy off Balotelli on. Time was running out and Aguero , who had been double-teamed all night, found the space to attack a Pablo Zabaleta cross and force a brilliant save from Weidenfeller.
Surely City were going to lose only their second ever European tie on home soil. Aguero and the under performing Czech Republic referee, Pavel Kralovec had other ideas.
Two minutes from time Aguero hit a cross-cum-shot onto the excellent Neven Subotic’s thigh which ricocheted onto his elbow – penalty! The Serbian centre half could not believe it. City players and fans alike could not believe it - the Czech – who had been anything but a ‘mate’ to City’s cause – pointed to the spot.
Mario exercised his veto over Aguero’s claim as penalty taker, even enduring the whispering Weidenfeller in his ear in blatant attempt at gamesmanship that went unpunished by the ref.
But antagonize Mario at your peril. He stepped up with ice coursing through his veins and coolly passed the ball into the bottom right hand of the net. The Italian returned the compliment to the cheeky German keeper, imitating ‘chops’ with with a hand gesture.
It was an equalizer hardly deserved but deliriously received. The magnificent Hart still had time to make one final save from Lewandowski low down to his left, before an evening of anxiety and inferiority came to a conclusion.
Rarely, if ever, has Mancini’s Manchester City been given such a comprehensive runaround – even in defeat. The Joe & Mario Show could yet prove vital to City’s progress out of Group D and ultimately the ongoing employment of Roberto Mancini.
By David Walker