Champions League

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Hart masks poor City performance

Manchester City's Joe Hart
Manchester City's Joe Hart won man of the match honors against Borussia Dortmund.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wednesday, October 3
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After Manchester City squandered a lead with just minutes to spare and lost to Real Madrid 3-2 a fortnight ago, goalkeeper Joe Hart was unabashed in his analysis.

“You can’t go 2-1 up with five minutes to go and lose the game,” he told reporters. “Who else can we blame? We can only blame ourselves. We’re not a team that should come here and pat ourselves on the back for doing well. We’re a team that gets results.”

His comments drew the ire of his manager Roberto Mancini, who had declared that his side had “played really well.”

“If anyone should criticize the team, I should criticize the team, not Joe Hart,” snapped Mancini at a post-game press conference. “Joe Hart should stay as goalie and finish.”

Hart did exactly that on Wednesday, when City took on their second opponent, Borussia Dortmund, in the UEFA Champions League’s group (of) D(eath). He single-handedly (well, two-handedly) kept a hapless City in the game with sprawling saves in the 12th, 54th, 67th and 91st minutes; an incredible reaction save from up close in the 39th; and by denying Mario Goetze one-on-one in the 39th minute and Marco Reus in the 65th.

Yet not even he could repair two dreadful City turnovers in the 61st minute, the latter of which was a square ball from Jack Rodwell straight into the path of the excellent Reus. The German forward, on a clear run to goal, pummeled his effort past the Hart for the game’s only goal.

As the second half unfolded, Dortmund grew dominant, creating chance after chance, only to find Hart in its way. The bleached-blond goalkeeper was ultimately rewarded, however unfairly, for his heroism in keeping City in the game. In the 90th minute, Mario Balotelli coolly converted a dubious penalty awarded after a ball was kicked against Neven Subotic’s trailing arm in the box, a shot he could scarcely have gotten out of the way of.

The game ultimately vindicated Hart and proved once again that it’s transcendent individual performances that make the difference at the very highest of levels on these European nights.

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This notion was reaffirmed in the other Group D game between an ambitious young Ajax and mighty Real Madrid. Pesky as Ajax proved throughout the first half, buoyed by some immense saves by their own quicker-than-his-shadow goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo ran rampant in the second half. The former scored on a show-stopping bicycle kick in the 48th minute while the latter broke Ajax’s resistance with a tap-in just before half-time and completed his hat-trick – his first in the Champions League – with fine goals in the 79th and 81st minute to make it 4-1.

A striking contrast between managers also emerged from the games. Whereas Madrid’s Jose Mourinho remains a master of his craft, patiently outmaneuvering an eager opponent, and Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp has clearly learned a lot from last season’s Champions League debacle – wherein his side earned just four points – Mancini remains incapable of managing a game or making adjustments on the fly. These are eminently important skills at the European level, where you can’t bull your way to titles on the innate strength of your squad.

Ahead of Wednesday’s game, he seemed acutely aware of what needed to be done to advance from the group stage, which City failed to do last year. “We need to improve very quickly because we only have five games left, and we need to stop conceding easy goals like we did in Madrid,” he said. “In my opinion [Dortmund] are one of the best teams in Europe. If we concede too much space again, we will pay for it.”

But concede space and easy chances were exactly with City did. As has been the case all season, it wasn’t able to establish a rhythm in spite of having most of the ball, putting considerable pressure on a slipshod back line whenever Dortmund broke forward in numbers. Once Dortmund started carving open the passing lanes, it easily cut through to Hart. What little tactical changes Mancini made – replacing Samir Nasri with Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy with Balotelli – were largely ineffectual.

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As a manager, Mancini made his name at Inter Milan by winning three consecutive Italian titles with a club that hadn’t won any in two decades. But he ultimately lost his job because his team, among the very best in Europe at the time, never managed to advance very far in the Champions League. In the end, Inter gave up on Mancini and hired Mourinho to bring them European success – which he did.

“We want to show our fans we still have a chance of going a long way,” Mancini said before the contest.

After Wednesday’s games, however, City sits three points behind Dortmund and five behind Real, both of whom comfortably outplayed. Consequently, the Citizens are not exactly a favorite to go a long way, let alone survive the group stage.

Perhaps Mancini isn’t the person to be doling out the criticism after all.

Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.

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