Bayern Munich 1-0 Manchester City: Jerome Boateng thrashes home winner against former team
Just when Manchester City seemed to have done enough to suggest that things have changed and they will probably reach the high ground of Europe this time, a brutal and sobering strike at the death left them reflecting once again on the Champions League’s pitifully narrow margins.
Their attempt to begin charting a new course was not helped by the struggle of Yaya Touré to make an imprint on a game he frankly looked unfit for. But a display of the highest order from Joe Hart appeared to have been enough to help them hold on before Mario Götze’s back proved the difference between hope and horror.
A powerful 90th-minute shot by Jérôme Boateng – who returned to Germany from his stint at City three years ago because he could no longer accept being deployed at right-back – gave Pep Guardiola’s side the points which could prove vital to winning this group.
Though Bayern rained efforts in on goal from the first to the last, the late blow was brutal, taking City right back to a place they thought they had left behind. It was two years ago that they thought they had reached the high ground by holding Real Madrid 2-2 in their opening Champions League game at the Bernabeu before Cristiano Ronaldo struck late.
This campaign’s beginnings had echoes of that fearsome early battering they underwent in the Spanish capital. They have bought Fernando to give them resilience and balance in midfield and the absence of the player who has done most to improve them meant there was no more sense than ever that this is an English side ready to sweep the continent’s best aside.
The City midfield was often an open field for the Germans in a first half when Hart was called on half a dozen times to make saves and the opening goal always seemed to be coming. There was nothing new about the source of City’s imbalance. Touré’s advances, the singular source of City’s energy and drive, left the rearguard exposed in a way that Fernandinho could not always cope with.
It wasn’t exactly the annihilation that the Germans had submitted City to in the first 10 minutes last season or the gigantic rondo of successive passes they produced at the Etihad when they won there last season, but the breaches of City’s defence were a constant concern.
The road which City want to take them to Berlin on 6 June was only 44 seconds travelled when Thomas Müller was put through against Hart. The goalkeeper clipped him as he took the ball around the left route and the striker’s reward for staying honest and on his feet was the sight of his shot clipping the side netting. Hart could count himself lucky.
But he made his own destiny in the 45 minutes which were to follow. The outstanding save in that first half was a fingertip effort tipping Müller's header over from Juan Bernat’s dangerous cross from the left. Other instinctive stops ensued from Götze and David Alaba.
It was not an opening period in which Robert Lewandowski covered himself in glory. Bayner’s new Polish striker has made a slow start here, which has been a source of angst, and he sent the ball into the same patch of side-netting as Müller had done when Xabi Alonso and Alaba ferried the ball to him in a sweeping move.
The German profligacy kept City in contention, along with defending of the highest order when Bacary Sagna took the ball off Lewandowsi’s boot as he looked set to break through, and the visitors began to break out too. When Touré seizes the ball and moves from his nonchalant paddling around the centre circle to advance mode he looks as dangerous as anyone on the continent.
Edin Dzeko, selected ahead of Sergio Aguero for the greater physical presence he provides as a lone striker, went close early on when he followed David Silva’s ball to the left touchline and forced Manuel Neuer into a sharp save. But the Germans looked comfortably more likely to convert attacking possession into chances.
City turned to James Milner to deliver some of what he had provided in their recovery from the ropes to win 3-2 here last December. His arrival for Samir Nasri was one of the night’s more elementary decisions. The Frenchman did not manage to make inroads into the game.
But Milner also created immediate balance, strengthening the central areas alongside Fernandinho for City and freeing Touré into an advanced role. The chequered nature of Touré’s night contributed. His seeming lack of fitness was a problem. The sight of Mehdi Benatia easing past him – Toure not offering so much as a challenge – as the game entered its last 10 minutes said a lot.
Milner was involved at the inception of a move which demonstrated City’s fire for the first time, locating Silva, who followed his raking 20-yard pass out to Jesus Navas with a run into the area. But there his marginal miscalculation with the winger’s returned cross saw him nod the ball wide.
There were more heart-stopping moments for Manuel Pellegrini’s side. In a rare blemish on a fine night, Hart fumbled a Rafinha cross straight to Müller’s feet but was saved by the fact that the striker was offside.
Some moments of outstanding individual defending were also needed. Sagna might not provide the attacking width of Pablo Zabaleta but the new level of security he brings was even more evident in the second half. Martin Demichelis’s vital interception in a move built out of Navas’s inattention on the right potentially affected the course of the evening.
Though officialdom affected the course of those last minutes, denying Silva a penalty, it was substitute Arjen Robben who turned the night the Germans’ way. His penetration helped set up the winner. Early days in this group but City’s road seems a mighty long one.
Belfast Telegraph Digital