|“The team did however have the brilliant yet petulant Mario Balotelli, whose disgraceful stamp after half an hour meant the Blues had to play the remaining 60 minutes with ten men”|
It was billed pre-match as the “second Hamburg”, with the official website posting a number of famous City comebacks in what they clearly hoped would inspire fans to be the 12th man and get the ground rocking. It was a valiant effort on behalf of the club but the ridiculously early kick-off time and the fact that many fans simply cannot afford to attend all cup games, meant that the attendance was a miserly 27,000 and the ground, at times, resembled a morgue rather than a stadium. You can see why it was said to be the “second Hamburg” (the night that perhaps saw the best atmosphere at Eastlands to date) after all, City had to overturn a 2-0 deficit or face being knocked out of the competition, City had played poorly in the first leg and had a mountain to climb. A description almost reminiscent of the Blues’ trip to Kiev.
The game however, turned out to be an anti-climax. The ground was not rocking like it was for Hamburg because Manchester City no longer plays Mark Hughes’ style of football. The City youth players were not evenly spread along the sidelines acting as ball boys in order to keep a fast tempo. The team did not throw caution to the wind and go all out attack for 90 minutes searching for the required three goals. The team did however have the brilliant yet petulant Mario Balotelli, whose disgraceful stamp after half an hour meant the Blues had to play the remaining 60 minutes with ten men, a huge feat given the time-wasting tactics of Dynamo Kiev – tactics that went largely unpunished by the abysmal referee. Instead of attacking them from the start, something which the fans so desperately desired, Mancini adopted a “patient” approach to the game, preferring to dominate possession and patiently wait to spot Kiev’s weaknesses before pouncing. Unfortunately, despite a brave attempt, the Blues’ profligacy ensured that they would crash out of the competition before the quarter final stage. It was a disappointment for the players, whose tiresome efforts after Balotelli’s stupid sending off were worthy of qualification, the staff and the fans whose hopes of seeing City win a trophy now solely lie with the FA Cup.
The Europa League, though competitive in its own right, is not a patch on the Champions League when it comes to prestige, glory and the pure talent and class on the field. The teams involved are on another level making the Europa League look almost ridiculous. Manchester City were favourites from the start to win it, yet fell short before the quarter final stage against Kiev. It was a result which led to some fans, and commentators, questioning Mancini and his men. But is it that much of a disappointment? Yes, it is true that a trophy is a trophy, and after a thirty-five year drought it would have been greatly received, but there were no guarantees that it would have been City’s to hold come the middle of May anyway. With an FA Cup semi final against local rivals Manchester United to come – a game which, incidentally, would have occurred just three days after a Europa League fixture ( versus Portuguese side Braga) – and a nail-biting conclusion to the Premier League season the Europa League seems somewhat of an unnecessary distraction (to me anyway).
Going into the Sunderland game on the 3rd April, City had played sixteen more games than Sunderland because of their progress in the FA Cup and Europa League. And whilst it is true to say that City have a large squad, it has been proved that it is not blessed with the quality people initially thought. Add to the fact that City have an injury-hit squad, the strength in depth clearly is not enough to warrant a serious challenge on all fronts. Something had to give; thankfully it was the Europa League. If you ask any City fan had they the choice between winning the FA Cup or the Europa League I’m sure the answer would be the FA Cup. To beat Manchester United and potentially set up a final between Bolton or Stoke would put the Blues as huge favourites for the trophy and send them one step closer to tearing down the banner that drapes from the Stretford End, mocking United’s hapless neighbours.
Based on the quality of the team and the money injected into building the squad, City should finish in the top four and should, providing they can get past United, bring the FA Cup home too. The Blues no longer have to be concerned about playing a game every three days and can now fully concentrate on the FA Cup and the Premier League. Whilst the Europa League offers some European experience for City, it isn’t a patch on the Holy Grail that is the Champions League and that is what the club are ultimately aiming for.
Special thanks go to Aaron Searle for his help with the facts and figures.