James Lawton: Manchester City learn how far they still have to travel
Published 08/12/2011 | 09:09
In America they say that you can take the boy out of the country but not the country out of the boy.
For quite some time last night City brought the old-time theory back to mind when they once again looked uncomfortable, at times even gauche, on the Champions League stage that is apparently so much more challenging than anything hovering even remotely on the domestic horizon.
Was it really true that, for the moment at least, you could take City out of the Premier League but not the Premier League out of City? That had to be the continuing suspicion as Bayern Munich, though denuded of their most luminous talent, imposed a terrible hush on a crowd fearful of the outcome of Napoli's drive for the victory in Spain which would ensure City's brusque exclusion from the serious end of the great tournament.
This was the stratum of football City were supposed to invade with the depth of their wealth and the strength of their ambition.
However, Bayern, from their somewhat contemptuous chairman, the great old striker Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, down, made no attempt to conceal their sense of easy superiority. This, was, though, only up to the moment that David Silva reminded us that he has the skill and the imagination to produce exquisite action at more or less any football altitude.
It was not the least poignant aspect of a night when between them City and their equally angst-ridden neighbours Manchester United fought desperately for survival at the highest level of the game. Here was Silva producing the kind of brilliance threatening to burn off all Premier League competition, there was the exit door swinging opening with the news that Napoli had finally broken down the resistance of Villareal.
Napoli's president, the film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, had sneered that City's wealth would make the situation "very interesting" but soon enough in Spain it looked as if it might have been something he had picked up off the cutting room floor of an old Godfather movie.
Last night was not so much about skulduggery as divisions of competitive experience – and the impracticality, perhaps, of the idea that City could come sauntering into Europe and knock down old hands like Bayern.
City have to make a huge leap, one that they have the resources and personnel perhaps to accomplish as early as next season and if we doubted this there was plenty of evidence of frustrated ability and power last night.
Sergio Aguero showed moments of cutting-edge talent that will surely be a regular source of encouragement and when Yaya Touré doubled the lead there was perhaps a growing sense of hope that City might yet preserve their Champions League life.
Villarreal were, after all, still holding out in their former fortress of a little stadium and any worry about the ultimate shame of City being kept in check by Bayern reserves had been comprehensively dismissed.
However, such survival would surely not have banished the suspicion that City would still have had much travelling to do along the road of football sophistication. Yes, they have wealth and cover a huge tract of country in a brief time, but City now know as well as their manager Roberto Mancini that the higher echelon of European football is slow to let slip its most vital secrets.
City, like the country boy with so much talent but still lacking a vital sheen of finish, have their lessons to learn – and one of them is maybe to be a little harder on themselves than their accomplished captain, Vincent Kompany.
Before the anticipated ejection from Europe, he said the reason, unquestionably, was that they had drawn the strongest group. Of course, it was not. It was because they had failed to carry hardly a fraction of the authority they had produced in the Premier League into a superior level of challenge.
They came into the Champions League with enormous hope and almost as much expectation but last night they had to deal with a hard reality.
It was that money and even the most accomplished talent is no good unless you can meet every new set of demands. The one that City failed is the one that their much more experienced neighbours United now have to contemplate with a new edge of doubt. It is that in Europe no one can afford to rush their fences or forget certain standards.
United have plainly fallen below the ones that became such an intrinsic part of their experience. City, still, have to understand quite how deep they run. It meant that in Manchester last night there was a rare sense that in football you cannot quite put aside the fear that you may be not quite as strong as you once imagined.