Real Madrid 3 Manchester City 2: Jose Mourinho usually saves the knee-sliding and the touchline sprints for the big knockout games at the business end of the Champions League – Old Trafford with Porto; the Nou Camp with Chelsea – but last night was such a momentous occasion he permitted himself one of those no-holds-barred celebrations all the same.
There are not many Champions League group games that resemble World Cup semi-finals but this was one such match. The kind of game that few in the next eight months will better; remarkable for its sheer bloody drama and the two occasions upon which Manchester City took the lead and were dragged back by a Real Madrid team that, Mourinho said: "fought like animals".
That it was Cristiano Ronaldo who scored the winning goal in the 90th minute, his 152nd for the club in 151 games, was entirely in keeping with the nature of the night. City were embattled and under siege, then they were on the brink of a famous victory and they eventually departed in some state of bewilderment.
Asked in the aftermath what was going through his head at the end as he shouldered assistant Rui Faria out the way and slid on his knees, Mourinho replied that it was the thought of "a few computers deleting everything they had written and having to write something new". That was for the Spanish press, who have been on his case of late, but they were not the only ones.
City were clinging on in for a first half in which they had just 26 per cent possession and were beholden to their goalkeeper Joe Hart for keeping them in the game. Then, having twice taken the lead through Edin Dzeko and then Aleksandar Kolarov, they were berated by their manager in the aftermath for falling back too deep to defend their lead.
Hart, arguably his team's best performer, railed against Vincent Kompany's decision to duck out the way of Ronaldo's decisive shot which then dipped under the hand of the unsighted goalkeeper. Real have never lost their opening home group game in any Champions League season but that did not make it any easier for City to take.
There can be little doubt that City have a squad which should be capable of going far in Europe but last night was a lesson in just how high the standard is among the very best. The German champions Borussia Dortmund and the Dutch champions Ajax lie ahead in Group D and there is now very little room for error.
Madrid's dominance was best expressed in their 30 attempts on goal, 17 of which were on target compared to the eight that City managed, of which only five were on target. It was a typically risky team selection by Mourinho in which he left out Sergio Ramos, identified as one of the longstanding malcontents, although his coach was at pains to say it was a tactical decision.
The Real coach also picked Michael Essien in midfield ahead of Mesut Özil and Luka Modric, both of whom later came on as they chased the game. That was why Mourinho was most delighted at the final whistle and later he listed all the criticisms that he claimed would have been written had his team failed to win the game.
"You would have said I am crazy for leaving out Ramos and for leaving the creative players on the sideline," he said. "For playing with Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso and Essien. You would have said: '[Gonzalo] Higuain doesn't have a history of scoring goals in the Champions League'. That I should have played Karim Benzema. That [Fabio] Coentrao is fresher than Marcelo. I know everything that was prepared. I know it exactly before it is written."
Phew. And there are Premier League managers who think they get a hard time from the newspapers. In truth it was difficult to believe that Madrid had reached half-time without scoring and for that City had Hart above all others to thank.
The City goalkeeper saved brilliantly from Ronaldo and then Higuain on two occasions in the first 21 minutes with his team well and truly on the rack. Maicon, attempting to mark Ronaldo, will have been experiencing flashbacks to the second of his bad Gareth Bale experience two years ago at White Hart Lane.
Ronaldo prefers to cut inside from the left and shoot on his right foot and that was the pattern last night. On the first occasion it was Kompany whom the winger went past before forcing a save. The second time it was Maicon and Ronaldo's shot was headed at close quarters by Higuain and well-saved by Hart.
Mancini sprung a surprise of his own by giving a debut to Matija Nastasic, the Serbia centre-half signed from Fiorentina on deadline day, who was selected ahead of Joleon Lescott. On 34 minutes, Samir Nasri kicked the ball into touch and dropped to the ground clutching his hamstring. He had barely been in the game when he was replaced by Kolarov.
City scored a superb counter-attacking goal on 69 minutes when Carlos Tevez won the ball from Pepe around the halfway line and played in Yaya Touré for one of the those strident runs out of defence. He slipped in Dzeko, who had come on for David Silva, and the striker sent Iker Casillas the wrong way to score.
Had Touré managed to direct his shot inside the left-hand post of Casillas four minutes after the goal, Real might have cracked. Mourinho sent on Modric and Benzema and the equaliser came from the left wing, just minutes after Mancini had replaced Maicon with Pablo Zabaleta. Marcelo's right foot shot flicked off Javi Garcia and past Hart.
After that there was another absurdly good chance for substitute Zabaleta at the near post which he missed. The second City goal came improbably from a free-kick, given for a foul on Zabaleta by Benzema which Kolarov curled in. Casillas allowed it to drop in the far corner of his goal.
By then the Bernabeu was consumed with anxiety. Benzema scored the equaliser, turning away from Nastasic and just slipping his shot out of Hart's reach. Finally, Kompany ducked and Ronaldo scored the winner. Hart put his head in his hands – he had played one of the games of his life and lost in the last minute.
Man of the match Hart.
Match rating 9/10.
Referee D Skomina (Sloven).
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