Date: 15th September 2011 at 10:55am
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Champions League football descended for the first time on Manchester City at the packed Etihad Stadium last night where the visitors were SSC Napoli, a team from Italy who had qualified, like City, as of right and not, like Arsenal, via the play-offs.

With memories of City’s previous attempt to ‘terrify Europe’ consigned to the very dark distant past, and with City seemingly in ‘score at will’ mode in the Premier League this season, expectations at the Etihad were sky high as for the first time the Champions League anthem reached it’s crescendo.

City were out of the traps early and did everything but score. They were so dominant that after half an hour the possesion stats were almost 75% in City’s favour, but there was always an underlying sense of danger in the way Napoli went about their business.

Nerves played a big part in the sometimes raggedness displayed by City at the back, where even Kompany didn’t look as accomplished as usual.

But this did not deter City from pushing forward at every opportunity and Aguero’s unselfish running set up several opportunities for the retunring Dzeko,who toiled all night but just didn’t get a clean break.

Napoli had done their homework on Silva and paid him considerable attention throughout the encounter, but it was puzzling that Mr Eriksson, the Swedish referee decided that the first yellow card should be awarded to the otherwise excellent Pablo Zabaleta for a robust but ball winning tackle.

Although for long periods City kept the ball and attacked Napoli, the speed with which they counter-attacked was always to prove troublesome for City.

One such counter attack saw the fancied Lavezzi rattle the crossbar, and also saw them increase their confidence levels.

City’s most potent looking move saw Toure steam onto the second part of a long one-two, but with the goal at his mercy, he also clattered the underside of the bar at a time that if City had gone in front, I’m sure they would have stayed there.

Napoli came out for the second half in a more determined mood, forcing City to concede ground for the first time in the match. After 50 minutes some neat work down the right found Hamsik in space behind Kolarov. His rasping low shot beat Hart but thankfully Kompany was on the line to clear. A little bit of panic set in for a while but City overcame this and gradually started to take control.

However when you attack at this level you have to be accurate with your passes and when Barry’s back heel didn’t work Napoli were onto it in a flash. Maggio made the rapid break and Napoli were four on two with City retreating. He had options right and left. Left looked best but he chose right and found Cavani who blasted the ball straight through Hart and into the net. The away section went mad and one or two got themselves onto the pitch perimeter only to find the netting which had been left in place for this match preventing them from reaching the field itself.

This was the danger City had feared all night and it came along with alarming simplcity of movement and sheer precision in its execution.

So with Fenerbahce starting to appear above the horizon like the ghost of Europe past, City set about rescuing something from the match. The trouble is they started to look a bit predictable and it was difficult to see where a goal would come from. Tevez, Johnson and Clichy were on constant warm-up, so it was clear some changes would be made, but as Clichy prepared to replace Kolarov who had siffered a broken nose in an earlier challenge, City were awarded a free kick 20 yards out to the right of goal – classic Kolarov territory. And for once he did not let us down as he blasted the free-kick straight through the wall and into the net before De Sanctis could even move.

That proved to be the end of the night for Kolarov as Clichy took over at left back and Johnson introduced for Nasri.

City needed to change the points of attack and Johnson was probably the right introduction.

The Blues continued to hunt down a winner but twice almost let Napoli in. A poor attempted back pass from Kompany left Hart exposed. He managed to smother the attempt by ‘staying big’, then Joe himself had an awkward moment when Napoli almost sneaked in whilst he was deciding who to pass to.

So the match finished 1-1. Not what we wanted but we’ll settle for it.

There were several lessons learned and one or two clearly not learned. Was it not against Italian opposition in the Stadio Communale that Milner lost the ball on the edge of the Juventus penalty area and three passes later the ball was in our net?

Well his ex-Villa team mate did likewise here. The attempted back heel was unnecessary and cost City dearly.

Where do the plaudits lie today then? The forwards toiled and toiled all night, with space closed down and Cannavaro in impressive form for Napoli. Aguero hunted for room hoping to move defenders around and had some success, but Dzeko’s enforced rest at the weekend probably took some edge off his game. Nasri and Silva worked hard and took some treatment without ever getting any clear sights, although Toure who was strong throughout should have started the scoring in the first half.

For once Lescott looked stronger than Kompany. He used his body well to fend of the Italians and made some important tackles. I have said in previous Ped Reports that our back line still offers up chances and this was more than proved tonight where City could and should have paid penalties for inattention to detail in terms of the rapidity with which Napli were able to counter attack.

But for me tonight the unsung hero was Pablo Zabaleta. Always ready when called on and suffering from an early yellow card, he ran his socks off, tackled like a demon, raided down the wing and put in a typical 100% all-round effort. He is at the very root of what the ‘project’ is all about. He maybe not ‘non-native’ but City fans everywhere would give him ‘Honorary Mancunian’ Status without question.

His mis-back-heel apart, Barry also did well. I have often been critical of Barry but you notice him more when he is not there and not doing things that are pretty. Some of his tracking and tackling last night was excellent and laid some foundations for Yaya’s typical raids into enemy territory.

I waspleased with the referee, Zaba’s caution apart. He certainly didn’t buy into the Italian time wasting tactics,nor their rolling around when City players hadn’t touched them. Having tested him an coming up empty, Napoli decided to abandon that as a tactic.

I think we have to take the draw and move on. If nothing else it showed we can get something in adversity and showed how far the team has moved on.

As the matches start to queue up it will be interesting to see how we fare in Munich and I am very much looking forward to going along there.

In the meantime we need to put Fulham to bed and put out a team that can take the Carling Cup out of the hands of Birmingham.


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