City, Mancini running out of excuses
Soccer won out over cynicism in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday, as three giants were slayed by underdogs who took the game to their favored opponents.
Borussia Dortmund audaciously brought its usual up-tempo, pass-happy fluidity against visiting powerhouse Real Madrid and was rewarded when Robert Lewandowski put it ahead and Marcel Schmelzer notched the winner after a Cristiano Ronaldo equalizer. Schalke 04 upset Arsenal, picking it apart for a 2-0 win, courtesy of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Ibrahim Afellay goals. And, most notably, Ajax recalled memories of its long-lost glory by resoundingly outplaying mighty but reluctant Manchester City in a 3-1 win, spearheaded by Siem de Jong and Christian Eriksen.
In today’s modern game, playing good football is often penalized. Those with aspirations of attractive, attacking soccer and doing right by the spectator are preyed upon by clubs with no other objective than results. Good deeds are punished. Play optimistically and lose; play cynically and win — those seem to be the options. That made it all the more refreshing that optimism won the day over cynicism, for once.
This third round of the group stage also offered up a sobering realization for the Barclays Premier League teams. A league that is widely considered the world’s best fared exceedingly poorly over the last two days. It begged the question whether English sides are structurally overrated on the European scene. When sides from Ukraine, Portugal and the Netherlands — modest feeder leagues compared to the wealth and gravitas of the Premiership — can comprehensively defeat their clubs, the gap between the have and have-nots is clearly not so large as assumed.
On Tuesday, Chelsea lost to eminently beatable Shakhtar Donetsk 2-1 and Manchester United needed to stage a furious rally to turn an early 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win over Braga, a side that intimidates nobody.
In its loss to Schalke on Wednesday, Arsenal looked devoid of ideas and, as it has all season long, lacked firepower and urgency.
Despite the Gunners’ setback, Manchester City made the worst impression of all.
Against a young Ajax side made up mostly of players born in the late 1980s and early '90s, City and its designs on global domination emerged as the clumsy foes in a vintage Ajax performance. Showing the same temerity and callousness against a bigger club with bigger names as it did in the mid-90s, when a young, homegrown team trashed all in its path, Ajax zipped the ball around the huge field in an extended game of keep-away from City.
While Eriksen, de Jong and Lasse Schone swung the ball from side to side as the City midfield halfheartedly gave chase, wing backs Daley Blind and Ricardo van Rhijn made penetrating runs, to the deep discomfort of Gael Clichy and Micah Richards. Ajax’s long spells of possession were a symphony of triangles and deft little taps and sharp dribbles and graceful movement.
“The way they’re hitting it from side to side and making runs up the wing, it’s almost the perfect football, really,” commentator Gary Neville said.
City merely sat back in hopes that Ajax would overplay its hand and catch itself out. And indeed, in the 22nd minute, Richards split open the recovering Ajax defense with a ball into James Milner on a quick counter attack. Milner laid the ball wide for Samir Nasri, who curled his shot around Kenneth Vermeer.
But Ajax kept on playing, unafraid and true to its attacking beliefs as City stood and watched.
On the brink of half time, de Jong found van Rhijn on the right, whose return-ball met de Jong’s burst into the box. His one-time smash swerved crisply around Joe Hart for the just equalizer.
City was forced out of its shell in the second half. But its newly aggressive and forward-thinking approach didn’t solve its lack of possession. It lacked presence in central midfield.
Ajax went ahead in the 57th minute, as Niklas Moisander once again exposed the flaws of zonal marking on corners by slipping between two static defenders and heading in.
And in the 68th, to add insult to City’s injury, Eriksen danced laterally through its defense and watched as his shot took a bounce off Clichy and past the wrong-footed Hart and skipped into the net.
The game cast a damning light on City manager Roberto Mancini’s tactical ineptitude within continental football. Mancini has won much silverware, but none of it outside of the borders of whatever club he was managing. In Europe, his achievements are far outweighed by abortive campaigns. His Inter Milan sides never reached the latter rounds of the Champions League, which was won by his successor Jose Mourinho with more or less the same team. City crashed out of the group stage last season and look like a good bet to do so again this year with just a point from three games.
When Ajax hogged the ball by spreading its players, Mancini once again failed to adapt. His idea for improving matters was to take off central defender Joleon Lescott for wide midfielder Aleksandr Kolarov. Then, when panic set in, he started robbing the already overburdened midfield of manpower in favor of more central attackers, bringing on Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli for Gareth Barry and James Milner. Needless to say, this 3-3-4 formation with four men in a forward line already starved for supply didn’t help matters any.
If this slate of Champions League games was a victory for proactive soccer, it was most decidedly a loss for the English teams, too. As Neville noted, “there is no system now.”
And the biggest loser on the night?
Mancini without a doubt.