Thursday 14 December 2017

James Lawton: Blues should direct anger at themselves, not ref

Embattled manager Roberto Mancini threw himself at Danish referee Peter Rasmussen, and even in these days of near legalised, shirt-grappling mayhem, it was not hard to understand his rage.

It came when an Ajax defender attempted, and almost succeeded, in removing the jersey of Mario Balotelli in the last seconds of the match which took City to the very edge of another Champions League extinction.

Yet there was a deep frustration that went beyond another moment of European despair.

Indeed, there was a bitter truth that the scoring heroics of Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero ultimately couldn't disguise.

If City had some complaints about the officiating, their largest criticism had to be directed mostly at themselves.

This was another sub-standard attempt to justify their status as champions of England and serious challengers in Europe.

For the moment, Mancini can only be grateful that at least some of his players finally fought for survival -- and their own reputations. Toure used to be City's one source of unequivocal strength and will, a constant reproach to those around him who frequently fell below his implacable desire to win the important matches.

Last night he represented both sides of the enigma of City.

He was, at different points of the action, another plutocrat player marooned in a team with a dismaying tendency to become utterly lost; and then, in a flash of wonderful authority, he represented City's best chance of exerting some of the command and the furies which carried them to the Premier League title.

The goal which put his team back into the game was another announcement of the power and the command which has frequently promised to carry City to a dimension which would make a mockery of the worst of their Champions League floundering.

It was a relatively nondescript build-up, nothing to compare with the fluency with which Ajax had claimed such a huge early advantage, but when the ball came to Toure in the air his response was withering, wonderful control and a scissors kick which permitted no serious response.

The irony was the big man had been as catastrophically detached from the reality of City's crisis as any of his team-mates after the Dutch captain Siem de Jong swept his team into a two-goal lead in 17 minutes.

They were goals given up by something that could only be described as a mockery of zonal defence -- and no one had removed himself more completely from the specifics of serious defence than Toure. He went missing at the corners which Ajax exploited with a ridiculous ease.

Yet City, even this one which had arguably dropped to their lowest point in two impoverished Champions League campaigns, always have one source of potential redemption.

It is the individual quality of their best players and once Toure had struck in that familiar way, it was, even as Mancini tore at his hair, scribbled his notes and, at half-time, turned to Balotelli, a different match.

Ajax, prompted by the young Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen with some of that cool panache he displayed in the destruction City in Amsterdam, still played with an easy movement and skill, still rolled forward in an eye-pleasing manner unmatched by their opponents.

But City were applying heavier weight in attack and when another of their natural-born winners, Aguero broke onto a pass from Balotelli to equalise there was plainly time enough for the possibility of a great escape.

If it happened, and there was certainly sufficient momentum as the Etihad Stadium shook itself of something that come to resemble a collective coma, the reason for salvation could hardly be ranked as a mystery.

If their coach had been pilloried in recent weeks, the contribution of the players could hardly have been recorded in lights.

Now, on the point of the most ignoble, and earlier in the evening frankly embarrassing, exit from Europe there was at least clear evidence of a dawning sense of responsibility. Personal responsibility, this is, the kind that flows from professional pride and also, perhaps, some of the richest salaries in all of football.

It threatened not only to preserve at least a notional presence in the fight for knockout qualification but also a call for the most rewarding challenge when Real Madrid come to to Manchester. Instead, City had their rage against the referee and may choose to push blame away from their own essentially dismal campaign. It is a device that really doesn't work, not when you reflect that so much of the game was shaped, once again, by the coherence of a much younger but at times sharply more coherent team.

City live on, just, but as precariously as ever. They remain a team which, considering their cost and their man-for-man talents, are astonishingly unformed. (© Independent News Service)

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