Sergio Aguero struck twice in the closing minutes to complete a hat trick and revive Manchester City’s UEFA Champions League hopes with a 3-2 win over 10-man Bayern Munich.
Perhaps, at last, this was it. This is Manchester City’s fourth season in the Champions League and, finally, it has produced, if not a performance then at least a result that will live on in the collective memory — certainly if it gets the win, or scoring draw, it needs in Rome in a fortnight to reach the last sixteen of the Champions League (unless CSKA get a result in Munich). When the dust has settled after an extraordinary final few minutes, it will be acknowledged that City was saved — as so often this season — by the brilliance of Sergio Aguero. His performance was a less on in clinical finishing, but it covered up an otherwise deeply average performance from the Barclays Premier League champions.
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Psychologically, this was huge, City’s first win in the Champions League for almost a year and, more than that, a victory over one of the two form sides in Europe. That, from 1-0 up against a sub-strength Bayern Munich side down to 10 men that had nothing to play for, it managed to be outplayed and almost lost could be conveniently forgotten.
“We cannot concede two goals every game we play because it’s very difficult to win,” said City manager Manuel Pellegrini after the match. “At halftime, I told the players we had 45 minutes to score two goals. The second half has double merit — not only to beat Bayern Munich but also not to let the spirit fall down. I trusted this team could do this kind of thing. This kind of victory gives a lot of hope to the whole squad. We will fight to the end.”
City’s capitulation just before halftime would have been shocking if it hadn’t come with such a sense of dull inevitability, like a melting glacier collapsing slowly into the sea. Home fans jeered the prematch Champions League anthem in protest at the decision not to compensate City fans who had paid for travel to Moscow for the CSKA game before it was decided to play the game before behind closed doors because of racist chanting from CSKA fans. But there’s also a more general dissatisfaction with UEFA, something reflected in the difficulty City has had in selling out home games.
It’s difficult to pinpoint just what the issue is, but as a whole City fans just don’t seem that enthused by European competition. It’s true that UEFA’s way of calculating the seedings has counted against it, but it’s also true that the team has underperformed profoundly in the Champions League.
It felt like a similar story as Bayern had almost 62% possession in the opening 20 minutes before, in one clumsy challenge, the game seemed to take a decisive lurch City’s way. There had been occasions even before that when City’s pace had looked as though it might expose Bayern’s high line, but it was still a surprise when Aguero ran on to Frank Lampard’s ball and suddenly found himself behind the Bayern backline. Mehdi Benati panicked, made a hopeless lunge and brought the Argentinian down: Clear penalty and red card. Aguero beat Manuel Neuer from the spot.
Dante came on for Sebastian Rode, and Bayern carried on much as before. It was remarkably unfazed, so much so that, even a man down, it had an astounding 80% of possession in the final quarter-hour of the first half — a master-class in how to pass and move and retain the ball. City, eventually, buckled as Eliaquim Mangala tripped Robert Lewandowski just outside the box. Xabi Alonso calmly rolled a low free kick through a cluster of Bayern players on the end of the wall and past an unsighted Joe Hart, a strangely simple ruse superbly executed.
City seemed deflated, and within four minutes it had conceded again, a right-wing cross from Jerome Boateng finding Lewandowski, who got between Kompany and Bacary Sagna to loop the ball past Hart with his shoulder. Again, Hart’s position was badly awry. It was hard not to reflect as well that City had sewn the seeds of its undoing several years ago; one of the main reasons Boateng left the club was that he kept being played as a fullback, having to push forwards and offer an attacking option from wide, rather than in his preferred role as a central defender.
But a night that had already been benevolent had one more gift to bestow on City. “We lost the game,” Jose Guardiola said after the match. “We gave them the game.” Xabi Alonso had been superb all night, but a stray pass with five minutes to go was intercepted by Stevan Jovetic and Aguero ran on. He is surgical in such situations and proved so again.
Suddenly Bayern’s 10 men looked weary. Boateng, another player who had had a fine night, botched a clearance in injury-time and suddenly Aguero was clear again. Again he slipped a neat finish past Neuer. Rarely have ovations been as deserved and Aguero was sensational. City, though, cannot keep on relying on him.
FOXSoccer.com’s newswire services contributed to this report.