HAVING seen his Manchester City team allow their opponents a staggering 57 shots during two Champions League games so far this season, Roberto Mancini arrived in Holland perhaps feeling like the boy with his finger in the dyke ahead of the pivotal encounter with Ajax tonight.
What's more, City have mustered only one point from their unconvincing first two games -- the same points tally they had after the opening two matches of last year's unsuccessful group stage.
It's little wonder, then, that Mancini accepts City will be locked into an eternal cycle of Champions League 'groups of death' unless they begin transferring their domestic form to Europe.
Tonight's match has another make-or-break quality about it, although Mancini would not even contemplate the notion that defeat against a young Ajax side would bring this campaign to a close. "We can't think about games this way. We have to win and then talk," he said.
However, the Italian smiled winsomely when it was put to him that City would face a third successive campaign up against Europe's toughest sides if they failed to break through to the high ground of the knock-out stage.
"We want to play for a better seeding," Mancini said. "We must take our chance."
It was perhaps encouraging that his players wanted to take in how it feels to be at club with a rich European history. The manager dispensed with the recent practice of training at Carrington to meet their requests to view an Amsterdam ArenA stadium with interior walls adorned with images of legends.
After the pounding Joe Hart's goal received from Borussia Dortmund, who beat the Dutch side only narrowly, Mancini -- who is without David Silva, Jack Rodwell, Maicon and Javi Garcia -- has grounds for more anxiety.
"My fitness is great, I'm in top form," he said. "I am just looking forward to the many games that are coming. I can only say I have a long career ahead of me, anyone who says it won't happen again would be lying."
If City cannot progress through these back-to-back ties with the Dutch, who are yet to record a point, then they do not deserve to progress in the tournament of European champions.
Frank De Boer, the Ajax manager, was proud to say that Mancini's four strikers "cost more than the annual turnover here," though his reliance on youth is not all a bed of roses.
De Boer was so infuriated by their sacrifice of a two-goal lead in the 3-3 draw with Heracles Almelo that he accused the players of lacking the same ability to "punch dressing-room walls" that he possessed as a player.
De Boer, however, said he would certainly rather do it the fabled Ajax way than the City way, though he was reluctant to add his club's name to the list of continental sides who castigate Abu Dhabi's spend on City as immoral.
"It is like that," he said of their money. "They do nothing illegal. We have no money like that so we have to be inventive and creative and we try to use our academy to develop young players and that's how we survive.
"I like it more that way than just buying them, even though that's much easier. It's a philosophy. We have a different philosophy."
The loss of his best two players -- Jan Vertonghen and Anita Vurnon -- to Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United respectively has made for an Ajax team of topsy-turvy form, who were overwhelmed 4-1 by Real Madrid three weeks ago and have little in reserve.
It tells us something that they are reliant on Liverpool's cast-offs -- Christian Poulsen and a rejuvenated Babel -- for experience.
A Dutch journalist's curiosity with the modern legend of moneyed Manchester City led to Mancini being asked whether it was true that nine times out of 10 he bought the players he wants. "It is not true that I get (who) I want," he replied.
The same goes for Champions League opposition. Tonight is the chance to put a change to that. (© Independent News Service)
Ajax v Manchester City,
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