Naive Manchester City still have lots to learn in Europe after defeat to Bayern Munich
Bayern Munich 1-0 Manchester City
Just when Manchester City seemed to have done enough to suggest that things have changed and that 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 Toure 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 Gotze’s back proved the difference between hope and horror.
A powerful 90th minute shot by Jerome Boateng — who returned to Germany from City three years ago because he could not accept being deployed at right back — gave Pep Guardiola’s side the points which could prove vital to winning this group.
Though Bayern reined efforts in on goal from the first to the last, the 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 high ground by holding Real Madrid 2-2 at their opening game at the Bernabeu, before Cristiano Ronaldo struck late.
For City, the campaign’s beginnings had echoes of the fearsome early battering they underwent at Real Madrid’s hands in the Spanish capital in their opening match two years ago.
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 Joe Hart was called on half a dozen times to make saves and whenthe opening goal always seemed to be coming.
There was nothing new about the source of City’s imbalance. Yaya Toure’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 submitted City to in the first 10 minutes last season or the gigantic rondo of successive passes witnessed at the Etihad when they won therelast 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, 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.
he outstanding save of a half dozen from Hart 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 Mario Götze and David Alaba.
It was not an opening period in which Robert Lewandowski covered himself in glory.
The new Polish striker’s slow start here has been a source of angst and he sent the ball into the same patch of side-netting as Müller when Xabi Alonso and David 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 Toure 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 Toure into an advanced role. The chequered nature of Toure’s night contributed.
His seeming lack of fitness was a problem.
The sight of Mehdia Benatia easing past him —Toure not offering so much as a challenge — as the game entered its last ten 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 where his marginal miscalculation with the winger’s returned cross saw him nod the ball wide.
There were more heart-stopping moments for Pellegrini’s side.
In a rare blemish, Hart fumbled a Rafinha cross straight to Muller’s feet was saved from 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’ vital interception in a move built out of Navas’ 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.