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Clueless City press self-destruct button

IT REALLY was what they said it might be - a Group of Death - and it has all-but certainly deposited Manchester City from the Champions League at the first hurdle once again.

BUT what we witnessed from the side here last night was an act of self-immolation; a defeat which confirms that the club's own failings are the problem on an evening of dreadful defending and few chances created.

Plunged to the bottom of Group D, even wins in all three remaining games will provide no guarantee of progress for them now. They are playing for a Europa League place when Ajax arrive in Manchester, two weeks from now.

How to explain this baffling deficit between the side's domestic pre-eminence and European diffidence?

There's an odd habit that Roberto Mancini has of blaming himself for defeat, which he tends to reserve for bad nights when no words will do.

It first surfaced after the 3-0 reverse at Liverpool a few days before the 2011 FA Cup semi-final, again after defeats at Everton and Arsenal last season and it was trotted out once more last night, with no explanation of how the Italian was supposed to have failed. All a smokescreen, of course. But there does seem to be a lack of a plan.

The City boss varied his tactics and formations throughout in search of the win his team needed to revive their Champions League campaign.

The game ended with multi-million-pound strikers Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli, Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko all on the field in a four-pronged attack but it proved to no avail.

The defensive line was also varied between three and five men and Gael Clichy was in an unfamiliar centre-back's role when he deflected Eriksen's strike past Joe Hart for the third goal.

Defender Micah Richards said: "It's not something that we've worked on a lot. We're just used to a back four.

"But the manager likes it and if we want to do well with it then we'll have to work harder on it.

"It's a hard system and I think the players prefer a 4-4-2 but he's the manager and we'll do what he says."

Mancini did not feel the changes of approach should have derailed his side.

He said: "We changed for five minutes to three at the back, but we always have 11 players.

"I don't think that is important - three, four, five, six or seven defenders.

"If someone wants that as an excuse then okay, but it's not the reason."

Yet here, in the way he built and re-built his formations four times, was a real sense of a manager still computing how to put together a combination which can accomplish things in a tournament which has always defeated him and has delivered some of his most excruciating moments in football.


They weathered the early storms from Frank de Boer's youthful charges in which Christian Eriksen was the best player on the field.

They led through Samir Nasri, whose excellent, deftly weighted supply came from Milner, seizing the opportunity of only his sixth start in a season when his City star has seemed to be descending.

De Boer possessed teenagers rather than millionaires, as one Dutch journalist reminded Mancini later, and in the brilliant Siem de Jong we saw another individual playing with freedom and assurance that comes of a club uncomplicated by wealth.

De Boer also knew about some weaknesses in City. "Mario Balotelli, Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero go to sleep. They do not chase full-backs," he said afterwards, and it was Nasri's fecklessness which allowed De Jong to stride past him and take a return pass into the area from the enterprising right-back Ricardo van Rhijn. No fewer than three City players failed to deal with that ball.

It got worse. Very much worse. When Eriksen wafted a corner over from the right just before the hour, Joleon Lescott was simply outjumped and over-powered by the advancing Niklas Moisander, whose header put the Dutch side ahead. That Lescott was substituted, a mere six minutes later, does not bode well for his confidence.

It brought another re-build - 3-5-2 - which ought not to have been a problem, to De Boer's mind.

"If you are at a top club and your manager tells you to do something you must be able to do it. You must be able to change in three minutes," the Dutchman reflected later.

But the calamity which ensued on 68 minutes proved otherwise, when Lasse Schöne stole the ball from Barry and fed Eriksen. Vincent Kompany's studs seemed to get stuck in the turf as he advanced to challenge, allowing the Dane to ease around him and fire off a shot which Gaël Clichy deflected dismally into his own net.

There were shades of Dortmund when Joe Hart hurled himself at a shot from Tobias Sana, eased through on goal by Schöne, to stave off an embarrassment.

By then the system was morphing wildly. It was desperate -- kitchen sink time -- when Mario Balotelli arrived. But the real despair comes now, as Mancini wonders if he will ever grasp the secrets of Europe.