City’s European dream salvaged by Aguero treble
Manchester City’s hopes of qualification through to the Champions League knockout stages remained intact after Sergio Aguero netted all three goals in a thrilling 3-2 victory against Bayern Munich at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night.
Having assembled an all-star squad worthy of challenging the Harlem Globetrotters, it is no hidden secret that Manuel Pellegrini’s side has massively underachieved during their brief furore among Europe’s elite.
This campaign marks City’s fourth-straight year in the Champions League, yet they do not appear to have made any progress despite recruiting nearly £300m worth of talent in that time.
It remains a mystery to most why a squad containing a world-class alternative in every position continues to falter at the most primitive of stages.
Yet City have only embraced knockout football once in three years and remain outsider favourite’s to make the business stage of the competition with one game remaining.
Pellegrini’s men are looking to follow in the footsteps of just two other teams to have qualified from a Champions League group with two points or fewer after four matches – after Lokomotiv Moscow in 2002/03 and Porto in 2004/05.
City fans can berate the Uefa seeding structure all they like, but it isn’t Michel Platini’s fault they have failed to beat second tier European sides like CSKA Moscow on three out of four meetings.
Those same City fans may feel they are due a bit of luck in Europe and it would be wasteful if they didn’t go on to take full advantage of several colossal moments across the course of Tuesday night.
Had it not been for Vassili Berezoutski’s last gasp equaliser against AS Roma in the evening’s earlier kick-off, City could have been looking straight down the barrel of an early Champions League exit.
Victory for Roma would have meant City needed all three points against Guardiola’s men in order to stay in the hunt. As it happened, Roma’s draw meant City could have even suffered defeat against Pep Guardiola’s men and still have had a chance of progressing in the final game week.
It would have required at least a 3-0 victory in Rome, but having already seen Bayern score seven in the Eternal City it would have been by no means impossible.
Having gained what appeared a monumental advantage in the 21st minute when Agüero converted his first of the night from the spot following Mehdi Benatia’s red card, City should have gone through the gears against a Bayern starting XI already absent of Philip Lahm, Mario Gotze, Thomas Muller, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thiago Alcântara, Javi Martinez and David Alaba.
Instead, the next hour of football perhaps summed up City’s season, which has been full of caution and vulnerability. Bayern would enter halftime leading 2-1 and in control of 65 per cent of the ball.
There was one team who were a man light, but it certainly didn’t look like the men in red.
But with five minutes to go – perhaps with Pellegrini’s future on the line – City were handed two more helpings of luck. Xabi Alonso, who had looked after the ball like it was his own, was first to deliver Aguero his second before former City defender Jerome Boateng’s hesitancy allowed the Argentine through on goal in added time.
Neither mistakes were by no means gimmes for Agüero, but when you give opportunities like that to one of the best in the business you are asking for trouble.
The last-minute serge of emotion evoked similar feelings Agüero had brought up at the Etihad in May 2012 – when his late winner earned City their first league title in 44-years.
He is easily becoming the best £38m they have ever spent.
Most believe City should be breezing through group stages but even this would be the greatest of escapes by their standards.
Unfortunately for City, they have only reached the first checkpoint. With Bayern’s progress already built on an unassailable lead, in order to secure second spot in Group E they must first overcome Italian giants AS Roma – who themselves are also looking for passage into the next stage.
Should City manage to win, or even come away from the Stadio Olimpico with a scoring draw, they will have put their name in the hat for the next stage, assuming CSKA fail to triumph in Munich.
What also remains an enigma is how even after having spent over a billion pounds on players and £200m on new state-of-the-art training facilities they still encounter trouble selling out their 60,000-seater stadium with five-time European champions Bayern Munich in town.
This isn’t the first time the Premier League champions have failed to fill their stadium on what should be a blue ribbon occasion, and it is unlikely to be the last.
Last season saw Pellegrini get his math’s all wrong in their last Champions League group game and that proved the difference between qualifying in first and second. Hopefully, he knows what is required on this occasion when they travel to Rome in a fortnights time.
Picture Credits: LiamUK