Champions League

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Mancini wrecks City's European hopes

Highlights of Real Madrid's 1-1 draw against Manchester CIty.
Highlights of Real Madrid's 1-1 draw against Manchester CIty.
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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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It took Roberto Mancini just 10 minutes to destroy what little chance his Manchester City had to salvage anything from the shipwreck that’s been its UEFA Champions League campaign on Wednesday.

In spite of an ugly precedent, and his players’ public proclamation that it made them uncomfortable, Mancini went back to a 3-5-2 formation, the very ploy that had backfired in Europe several times before.

And so they were predictably peeled apart, layer by layer, by a savvy Real Madrid.

City desperately needed the home win to have even a prayer of staying in the running to qualify for the Round of 16. But the simplicity and frequency with which City gifted Real chances was never going to allow that.

Just 10 minutes in, Luka Modric found Angel Di Maria on the right, who cut the ball back onto his preferred left and heaved a looping cross towards the back post. There, Karim Benzema easily ran away from Maicon and Pablo Zabaleta, perhaps confused over who was supposed to cover the Frenchman who cushioned the ball into the nets minded by Joe Hart.

Along the sideline, Mancini looked stoic as always. His shiny mane of salt-and-pepper hair draped onto his expensive-looking coat, sealed off with his signature white-and-sky-blue scarf. And then his lips curled up and produced something between a smirk and a smile.

What so amused him we’ll likely never know. Perhaps it was his own stubbornness. Perhaps not, since he made no changes.

In the other coaching box stood Jose Mourinho: the man who had succeeded Mancini in his last job at Inter Milan. Because the Italian never did figure out how to push into the latter stages of the Champions League (which Mourinho eventually did win with Inter) or how to manipulate his lineups to outmaneuver opponents, City couldn’t bulldoze their opponenets on sheer talent.

As often, Mourinho’s tactics were as impeccable as Mancini’s were flawed. The Portuguese had his royals set up in a 4-5-1 with a midfield threesome of two-way players in Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira, and a playmaker in Modric who overwhelmed Yaya Toure, the only central midfielder Mancini had shielding his defense. Mourinho left a squadron of players behind the ball, ceding most of possession to City, but had them well positioned to break out and join Cristiano Ronaldo, Di Maria and Benzema whenever City coughed up the ball, which, under Real’s pressure, it did often. It was like City walked into the same ambush time and time again, allowing Real to casually fillet its three-man back line.

Ronaldo easily got by Maicon in the 13th minute and fed Sami Khedira, who diverted his open shot wide from 8 yards. A minute later, Ronaldo again danced through the City defense and sent in a cross that Khedira headed just wide. A minute after that, Ronaldo was played through the lines by Modric, but his lob over Hart was saved off the line. And in the 24th, Khedira was put through one-on-one with Hart, but the bleach-blonde goalie was quick enough off his line to block his effort.

By that point, Real should have been up by a handful.

Finally, Mancini adjusted and went to a 4-4-2.

City settled in for the remainder of the first half and was resurgent in the second, when it finally acquired some urgency, started pressuring the ball and figured out how to make the most of all its possession.

Sergio Aguero came close to scoring for City in the 64th minute, when Maicon’s cross – or was it a deflected shot? – found his foot but was saved off the line by Iker Casillas. Ten minutes later, Alvaro Arbeloa clumsily bundled Aguero over in the box, took his second yellow card and handed City its breakthrough when Aguero converted his penalty.

SHOULDER TO SHOULDER

Review the best images from the Champions League's group stage.

Late in the game, City’s assault grew furious as it pivoted to a 4-3-3. Having its backs against the wall, after all, seems to bring out the best in City’s game. But it never got its go-ahead goal, in spite of generous injury time.

This exasperating lack of hustle and desire early on in games is surely a failing of Mancini’s. Obvioulsy, his tactics were a failure. He allowed Real to run rampant and score the only goal it would need to knock the Citizens out before finally realizing that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t so clever as he thought he was.

This has been a pattern throughout his tenure. He simply hasn’t the tactical nous to compete in Europe. Never did. He is plenty capable of winning a domestic league title with a club flush with cash, allowing him to throw money at all his problems. But when it comes time to put his managerial thinking cap on, Mancini routinely finds himself overmatched. If it is City’s Abu Dhabi ownership’s ambition to conquer Europe, it has the wrong manager.

For the second year running, the so expensively-assembled Citizens are out in the Champions League group stage. They were handed tough groups both years, sure. But they nevertheless had the talent to overcome that. At some point, there has to be a reckoning for the man who has proved incapable time and again to solve the puzzle.

Mourinho certainly seemed to think so. “It’s incredible that this team, with these players, have been eliminated from the group stage two years running,” he told the press following the game.

“If it was Madrid,” he said of the reaction to Mancini’s underperformance with City, “the press wouldn’t let me return to Madrid.”

It’s hard not to side with Mourinho on this. And it leaves one wondering: did the wrong Roberto get fired on Wednesday?

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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