Too little, too late for sloppy Manchester City
Manchester City 3-2 Sporting Lisbon (3-3 on aggregate; Sporting win on away goals)
Manchester City 3-2 Sporting Lisbon: The Abu Dhabi wealth may have transformed the club, the players are now international superstars and the manager is a suave Italian but that time-honoured tradition at Manchester City that life must be made as difficult as possible just will not be shifted.
For reasons best known to themselves, Roberto Mancini's team gave away two goals last night and waited for an hour before they finally chose to signal an interest in beating Sporting Lisbon and progressing to the quarter-finals of the Europa League. Up to half-time they were truly awful and then after Sergio Aguero scored the first of his two goals on the hour they came alive in quite dramatic fashion.
The grandstand finish that City set-up had disgruntled supporters turning around on the concourse and settling back down in their seats. From two goals behind on the night and three on aggregate they needed four to progress and, against all the odds, they almost got them.
That it was goalkeeper Joe Hart who very nearly scored with a header from a corner in injury-time at the end of the game – it was pushed round the post by his counterpart Rui Patricio – only made the night even more surreal.
Few clubs can be quite as bonkers as City, even with some of the most famous names in European football in the team. Had they not given themselves a mountain to climb by conceding two goals in the first half then they would surely have beaten the team placed fourth in the Portuguese league and 12 points behind leaders Porto, who City eliminated in the previous round.
Once again Mario Balotelli was at the centre of it. The Italian needlessly conceded the free-kick from which Matias Fernandez scored the first and then it was Balotelli who scored City's second from the penalty spot. Mancini admitted to being "disappointed" with the player and "not only" for the first-half free-kick.
The City manager also contributed to a bewildering night by declaring himself responsible for the whole debacle. It should be said that none of it was terribly convincing. Mancini did the same after the defeat to Everton in January and the tactic of assuming blame simply comes across as a blatant attempt to mask something else, although what no-one was entirely sure. At least in the end his team won the game, if not the tie, and ended a run of two straight defeats with a victory on the night.
Winning would have been a mixed blessing with Manchester United tumbling out the Europa League earlier. It could be argued that this year, more than any other, there are greater priorities for City. But this is not a club that is so awash with success that it can afford to pick and choose its trophies: Mancini is required to win as many as he can.
Unfortunately for the manager, City played in the first half as if they no longer wished to maintain an interest in the Europa League. As the home team failed to get anything resembling an attacking rhythm together, gradually one could sense that the men of Sporting Clube de Portugal knew this tie was there for the taking. Most worrying for City was the sheer lack of invention from any department of the team and the simple reliance on hitting Balotelli early and hoping to feed off the loose ball.
On 33 minutes Balotelli barged into the back of the former Liverpool man Emiliano Insua and then looked baffled that the German referee should penalise him. From the free-kick, City put David Pizarro on the end of their wall and Fernandez struck a shot that whistled over the head of the diminutive Chilean midfielder and beat Hart, despite the hand he got to it.
City never really pulled themselves together and Sporting scored again five minutes before the break. Fernandez played in Marat Izmailov and his cross found the Dutchman Ricky van Wolfswinkel who only had to guide the ball in at the back post for his side's second goal.
In the second half in particular, there was much time-wasting from Sporting which broke up the game. Mancini had replaced Adam Johnson with Nigel de Jong and later Edin Dzeko for Pizarro. It was noticeable that David Silva was replaced again, this time by Samir Nasri after Aguero scored the first with a snapshot on the turn from Yaya Touré's pass.
The Argentine was fouled by substitute Renato Neto for the penalty that Balotelli scored. It was Aguero who once again finished at the back post for the third goal after Dzeko's header from Aleksandar Kolarov's corner was off-target.
By this time the ground was sensing a comeback on the same kind of scale as the 2004 FA Cup turnaround against Tottenham Hotspur and given another five minutes on top of the five the referee added on at the end of the game, City might just have done it.
The problem for Mancini is that although he has a win for the first time in three games he will recognise that this was not title-winning form, certainly not in the first half. The visit of Chelsea on Wednesday has the feel of another pivotal moment in the title race, especially if United win at Wolves on Sunday. Gifting the opposition a two-goal lead and then chasing the game is great entertainment but it is unlikely to win City the Premier League.
Substitutes: Manchester City De Jong (A Johnson, h-t), Dzeko (Pizarro, 55), Nasri (Silva, 66). Sporting Lisbon Jeffren (Capel, 63), Neto (Fernandez, 63), Carrillo (Van Wolfswinkel, 68).
Booked: Manchester City Y Touré, Kolarov, Savic, Balotelli. Sporting Lisbon Fernandez, Carrico, Polga.
Man of the match Aguero. Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Manchester City 70% Sporting 30%.
Attempts on target: Manchester City 5 Sporting 5.
Referee T H Hagen (Nor). Attendance 38,021.