Ajax 3 Manchester City 1: It really was what they said it might be – a Group of Death – and it has all-but certainly deposited Manchester City from the Champions League at the first hurdle once again. But what we witnessed from the side here last night was an act of self-immolation; a defeat which confirms that the club's own failings are the problem on an evening of dreadful defending and few chances created.
Plunged to the bottom of Group D, even wins in all three remaining games will provide no guarantee of progress for them now. They are playing for a Europa League place when Ajax arrive in Manchester, two weeks from now.
How to explain this baffling deficit between the side's domestic pre-eminence and European diffidence? There's an odd habit that Roberto Mancini has of blaming himself for defeat, which he tends to reserve for bad nights when no words will do. It first surfaced after the 3-0 reverse at Liverpool a few days before the 2011 FA Cup semi-final, again after defeats at Everton and Arsenal last season and it was trotted out once more last night, with no explanation of how the Italian was supposed to have failed. All a smokescreen, of course. But there does seem to be a lack of a plan.
Mancini brushed off Micah Richards' complaints about a three-man defence. Yet here, in the way he built and re-built his formations four times, was a real sense of a manager still computing how to put together a combination which can accomplish things in a tournament which has always defeated him and has delivered some of his most excruciating moments in football.
City had won only twice away in Europe in his tenure before last night and there was a back four in place which had never before played together on the Continent, with Joleon Lescott's start perhaps reflecting Mancini's realization that the more offensive Matija Nastasic really is not yet the big-game player he thought he would be. After the midfields which had been torn asunder by Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund – 57 shots had reined in Joe Hart's goal – there was a solid, old-fashioned Englishness about James Milner and Gareth Barry's holding roles.
They weathered the early storms from Frank de Boer's youthful charges in which Christian Eriksen was the best player on the field. They led through Samir Nasri, whose excellent, deftly weighted supply came from Milner, seizing the opportunity of only his sixth start in a season when his City star has seemed to be descending. But even the goal could not obscure the underlying uncertainties about how to play and to win in a tournament which slowly and inexorably has become Mancini's curse. Attack? Defend? Play narrow? Wide? Even as his side led, Mancini was switching things very significantly, restoring Yaya Touré from the advanced midfield three where he started in a 4-2-3-1, to the core of a 4-4-2. Milner, the holder, was repositioned wide right.
De Boer's possessed teenagers rather than millionaires, as one Dutch journalist reminded Mancini later, and in the brilliant Siem de Jong we saw another individual playing with freedom and assurance that comes of a club uncomplicated by wealth. De Boer also knew about some weaknesses in City. "Mario Balotelli, Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero go to sleep. They do not chase full-backs," he said afterwards, and it was Nasri's fecklessness which allowed De Jong to stride past him and take a return pass into the area from the enterprising right-back Ricardo van Rhijn. No fewer than three City players fail to deal with that ball. Barry, the prime offender, wafted a leg. Vincent Kompany and Lescott were static. Milner, perhaps expecting at least one of them to cope, could not react fast enough to prevent De Jong depositing the equaliser.
It got worse. Very much worse. When Eriksen wafted a corner over from the right just before the hour, Lescott was simply outjumped and over-powered by the advancing Niklas Moisander, whose header put the Dutch side ahead. Another grievous moment for Mancini and the absence of eye contact between defender and manager when Lescott was substituted, a mere six minutes later, does not bode well for his confidence.
It brought another re-build – 3-5-2 – which ought not to have been a problem, to De Boer's mind. "If you are at a top club and your manager tells you to do something you must be able to do it. You must be able to change in three minutes," the Dutchman reflected later.
But the calamity which ensued on 68 minutes proved otherwise, when Lasse Schöne stole the ball from Barry and fed Eriksen. Kompany's studs seemed to get stuck in the turf as he advanced to challenge, allowing the Dane to ease around him and fire off a shot which Gaël Clichy deflected dismally into his own net.
There were shades of Dortmund when Hart hurled himself at a shot from Tobias Sana, eased through on goal by Schöne, to stave off an embarrassment. By then the system was morphing wildly from 3-3-4 and 2-4-4. Nasri looked like he was about to burst into tears when the Norwegian referee refused him a penalty: a feeble appeal. It was desperate – kitchen sink time – when Mario Balotelli arrived. But the real despair will come today, as Mancini awakes to wonder if he will ever grasps the secrets of Europe.
Booked: Ajax Blind. Manchester City Kolarov, Y Touré.
Man of the match Eriksen.
Possession: Ajax 54% Manchester City 46%.
Attempts on target: Ajax 6 Manchester City 5.
Referee S O Moen (Nor). Attendance 45,743.