Date: 23rd November 2011 at 8:14pm
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As the daylight brightened the Bay of Naples to show the might of Vesuvius standing guard and dominating the vista, we would have been forgiven for fearing that the darkening clouds added a degree of threat to the day.

Our fans were told to stay out of the city centre and away from the railway station so quite why a group of them were sitting drinking at a café bar next to the station remains a mystery.

You can see at a glance why English football fans encounter difficulties in this most foreboding of cities. The narrow streets are a haven for crime, and indeed for scooter-bound nasty pieces of work to zip past you brandishing their daggers. Indeed you could also be forgiven for thinking that these individuals are the illegitimate offspring of sundry visiting mariners .

Not all Napolitanos are like that, though. There were some very pleasant people, happy to welcome City`s fans to their town, which is massive and spreads across a number of hills to the slopes of the volcano, which sadly Thomas Cook Sports hadn`t arranged to be erupting.

The passion with which the locals receive their football is quite astonishing. There is no room for compromise, they were going to beat City. No doubt in their eyes.

As the players went for their midday walk attended by around 20 police officers, the surrounding locals brandished their iPhones, cars stopped on the busy coast road, their drivers doing likewise amidst the din of blaring horns from those disinterested. The cries from the local women of “Mario, I want to have your baby” were not in isolation and were treated by our hero with the same disdain that he treats a penalty kick.

Later, the route to the match provided a number of different and unbelievable challenges. Despite our police escort, scooters buzzed in an out like locusts some bearing up to 4 people, some taking the side off parked cars, or even moving ones, but thankfully not our coach.

Arriving at the stadium there were already more than 20000 Napoli fans inside two hours before the UEFA Champions League anthem resonates around the cavernous spectacle, designed to intimidate whoever dares to take on the might of their favourites. And into this entered Manchester City last evening.

Mancini had selected his “midweek team”, minus Clichy and Richards (unforgivably in my opinion), but inclusive of Zabaleta and Kolarov in their place. Midfield was more predictable although Barry was relegated to the bench and up top the big boys were out with Balotelli partnering Edin Dzeko, perhaps, on reflection, another error.

City knew this was a must win match and set off with that in mind. The ferocious home crowd on the Curva A and Curva B, 60000 in total made a thunderous noise, but the Blues, tonight in red and black were not to be intimidated.

Napoli started brightly and their big hitters, Lavezzi, Hamsik and the superb Cavani counter attacked with speed and precision causing City problems and indeed all three could have got on the scoresheet. But City looked to be dealing with that especially when Joe Hart made a spectacular save from a screaming shot by Inler. However as is often the case the save appeared to be in vain when…

From the resultant corner taken by Lavezzi, Cavani got there first and although his shot bagatelled off Kolarov and Toure and into the net leaving Hart baffled. The Curvas went nuts, the noise was incredible.

City however were not prepared to take this lying down and pressed on. Dzeko was having one of his “cement wellies” evenings and the front line was really crying out for the mobility and threat offered by Aguero, but Mancini inexplicably kept him warming up for most of the match.

Chances started to come City’s way, but there was always the threat from Lavezzi who easily had the measure of Zabaleta and the mighty Cavani who just about led everyone a dance.
Dzeko, Kolarov and even the Magician himself squandered chances as City’s game started to emerge and when Dzeko found space on the left his attempted cross hit the first defender but squirted away to Silva. His shot was parried away by de Sanctis only to the feet of Super Mario, who drilled City onto level terms after 33 minutes.

The Curvas now resembled Stretford on a 1-6 afternoon and City stepped up their game. Some fluidity returned to their passing and it looked as though they had seen off the home threat, but the next goal was going to be vital.

Napoli probably wanted half time more than City as it gave them time to regroup and redefine their game plan. City came out believing that the next goal would be theirs, but the hosts had other plans. Seven minutes into the second half a poor hoisted clearance by de Jong found Cavani who had dropped deep. He swiftly moved the ball out to Dossena who found the open acres beyond Zabaleta and played a superb cross right into Cavani’s stride. Despite a valiant effort by Hart, he simply needed hands like Frank Bruno to keep it out. So from being on top for the first time ahead of half time, City were now 2-1 down early in the second half.

Up went the flares in the Curva B, up went the volume. But City didn`t give it up. Opportunites came at both ends as the game opened up to reveal a full-blooded cup tie. Hart made three astonishing saves one-on-one with Lavezzi and Cavani, at the other end Balotelli was in profligate mood as he headed over an open goal, and side footed another chance into the grateful arms of de Sanctis. He had a full blooded shot blocked. But City’s game needed Aguero, it needed perhaps Johnson and it certainly needed Richards who wasn’t even on the bench. In short it needed other forms of threat as the Napoli defence and midfield stayed tough. For some reason it wasn`t forthcoming with Mancini not introducing the alterations until it was too late for them to make a difference. Having said that in his first involvement Aguero asked them more questions than Dzeko had all night.

It was Napoli’s turn to close out the victory and they duly did so much to the enjoyment of the madmen on the Curvas.

This was not as poor a performance by City as some of the pundits and scribes have suggested. It is not easy to go to a cauldron of noise and passion, to a stadium modelled on the volcano that dominates the town in front of 60000 locals and win. City certainly has the game to win these matches, but whereas so far this season lady luck has smiled our way, tonight she was on another side of another fence. Napoli’s first goal was a product of the lady herself, the second superb in its execution.

It was perhaps fitting that City’s two best players were in fact English. For me Hart was simply outstanding and the industrious Milner the pick of the midfield against his more illustrious colleagues. De Jong didn’t deliver the goods as he did last season and as soon as he ballooned his “kick it anywhere” clearance to Cavani, I told the guy next to me that this will come straight back. And it did with dividends.

Those of us across from the Curva A could tell almost at once that this was going to be one of those Roque Santa Cruz nights for Edin Dzeko, who looked as though his legs weren’t working. Conversely Balotelli, keen to show his homeland how good he is becoming under Mancini, put in a tremendous amount of work in the first half and showed his frustration in the second presenting the excellent Slovenian referee with a gift yellow card opportunity.

In the same way as we bossed the half way line on Saturday, we didn’t in Napoli. Passes went astray, Napoli tightened up on Silva and Toure who couldn’t always get their passes off. You can see why Mancini fancies Cavani. He was simply superb all night and would look better in a different brand of light blue shirt. Swap for Tevez anyone?

Cavani looks dangerous every time he is on the ball and could have had five last night, but for the brilliance of Joe Hart. It wasn’t to be City’s night and it looks as though the Champions League dream remains only that for this season as we head for Thursday nights on Channel 5.

It was a disconsolate bunch that headed back to Capodichino Airport. As our coach driver had us sitting in traffic jams for ninety minutes, I wonder if he can tell us how the fans who were kept in for more than half an hour got to the airport ahead of us?

Vesuvius will still stand tall and proud today, and indeed tomorrow, but let us pay some tribute to the City team that didn’t give up, didn’t wave the white flag, but were disappointed not to get something they deserved out of an excellent cup tie.


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