Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Manchester City look the part on European stage at last

Villarreal 0 - 3 Manchester City: This time, a headache that Roberto Mancini will be happy to live with. His side's European adventure is the one aspect of the season which has tainted his garlanded image but the only pain he incurred, as Manchester City last night finally proved themselves worthy of a place in this tournament, came when he leapt up to appeal a first-half decision and bashed his head on the away dugout.

There was something rather fitting about the way his side accelerated into the lead seconds after he sustained the blow and they certainly never looked back against a team who were challenging La Liga's hegemony 12 months ago but last night did nothing for the hallowed image of their nation's football.



Mancini emerged for the second half with an ice pack on his head and the coolness he displayed in victory last night reflected a side strengthened in the belief that they can make up for a shaky start and seal qualification for the knockout stages in Naples, 19 days from now. Mancini has said that he feels that the encounter with the Neopolitans – who drew 1-1 in Manchester – will be the one which dictates his side's European destiny. The Italians' defeat in Munich last night means that three points in Italy will take City through.



The opposition was too pitiful to draw too many conclusions, though David Silva's lustre as he glided around in front of the Villarreal box highlighted him as a player who can light up Europe next spring. From appearing to be a player slipping out of contention, James Milner has also emerged as the one who can bring steel to the City silk and he linked exceptionally with Silva, too. Yaya Touré provided the finishes.



City found themselves in modest surrounds: this ceramics town's entire population is only twice their football stadium's 25,000 capacity. While City's spending hit its peak 18 months ago, Villarreal's wage bill was cut by 15 per cent because their owners were struggling to shift bathroom units and their crippling current injury list reached eight when Bruno Soriano went down with a sickness bug yesterday.



But while the Spaniards were seeking a first point in Group A, Mancini was seeking to learn from the harsh lesson dealt by the 2-0 defeat in Munich earlier in the campaign. There was less ambition: one striker fewer, with Sergio Aguero on the bench, and the solidity of Pablo Zabaleta instead of Micah Richards, who let Franck Ribéry through the door in Germany.



Mancini need not have had nightmares. The Villarreal of last season who had "moved like angels", according to El Pais, were nowhere in evidence here and after Silva – instantly back at home in the region where he made his name – had spent the first half-hour weaving dangerously around the edge of their area, he sent Yaya Touré in to score. Juan Carlos Garrido's defenders stood off the Ivorian disastrously, allowing him to slot his first goal of the season to Diego Lopez's right



Touré, released by Milner's combative presence in holding midfield to the advanced role where he has been at his most dangerous for Mancini, proceeded to navigate a route through three Spanish defenders himself. But it was Mario Balotelli who asserted City's vast superiority in first-half injury time, when he nutmegged Jose Catala and advanced into the area for the ball. Mateo Musacchio pushed him in the back as he tried to stem the danger and, though there was a green laser-pen to distract him as he stepped up to take the resulting penalty, we know all about Balotelli's sangfroid now. A feint, a thrust of the right boot and City's lead was extended. For once, Balotelli had good reason for the swagger and the eyeball he offered the Spanish fans in the Fondo Sur.



Villarreal's contribution to the first half was limited to Jonathan de Guzman's lofted ball to Joselu which, had the Spaniard controlled the ball, might have done City some early harm. But this was not an opposition worthy of a place in a tournament of champions.



Touré rounded up the evening imperiously. A neat interchange of passes between Gaël Clichy, Samir Nasri and Balotelli concluded with Touré striding comfortably past Catala and clipping the ball past the stranded Lopez on 71 minutes in what, by this stage, was fast resembling a training ground routine. For some reason Mancini then decided to subject Aguero to the wrath of the home fans, incensed by his tunnel bust-up with the Spaniards in Manchester. Mancini moves in mysterious ways at times, though even Aguero's presence did not lift the becalmed stadium for terribly long and City's easy progress meant that he cut a far more relaxed figure in the depths of El Madrigal last night than when condemning Carlos Tevez as a "finished" man in Munich, a month back. It was with relief that Mancini reflected on Balotelli's accomplished performance. The Italian's first-touch pass for Touré's second was quite exquisite.



Mancini's players awoke in London this morning, having flown straight to the capital in readiness for the challenge of QPR at Loftus Road on Saturday. The club's football administrator Brian Marwood took a different route last night – a two-hour road trip immediately after the game to Barcelona, where his club's elite development squad face the Catalan side in the NextGen tournament tonight.



City have a vast amount of ground to make up at that level. They know that Denis Suarez and Abdul Razak aside, very few of their players look like Champions League players for the future. That is a concern, since City realise the spending will have to stop and growth become organic, the Barcelona way. But they have reminded the eastern Spanish seaboard of what they offer and can reflect with some confidence that they will be continuing their journey across the continent when, in all likelihood, the major challenges come their way next spring. Europe's best sides will have registered their progress.



Match Facts



Booked: Villarreal Wakaso, Catala, Musacchio, Marchena, Perez; Manchester City Balotelli.



Man of the match Y Touré.



Referee P Proença (Portugal).



Attendance 24,235.



Group A



Results so far Manchester City 1-1 Napoli, Villarreal 0-2 Bayern Munich; Bayern Munich 2-0 Manchester City, Napoli 2-0 Villarreal; Manchester City 2-1 Villarreal, Napoli 1-1 Bayern Munich; Bayern Munich 3-2 Napoli, Villarreal 0-3 Manchester City.



Remaining fixtures: 22 November Bayern Munich v Villarreal, Napoli v Manchester City. 7 December Manchester City v Bayern Munich, Villarreal v Napoli.



Gomez treble has Bayern top



Bayern Munich maintained their grip on Group A with a 3-2 win over Napoli in the Allianz Arena, Mario Gomez getting a hat-trick. Bayern raced into a 3-0 lead inside 42 minutes but Napoli fought back in the second half through two goals from centre-half Federico Fernandez. Both sides were reduced to 10 men late on, Camilo Zuniga for Napoli and Bayern's Holger Badstuber were sent off.

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