Kolarov brilliance gets City out of jail
Manchester City 1
AFTER the cheques, the reality check. Welcome to the Champions League, City. Welcome to the quality of counter-attacking opposition that lurk within.
Roberto Mancini's expensive team really needed to win their opening Group A tie yet were grateful for Aleksandar Kolarov's free-kick to cancel out Edinson Cavani's breakaway goal.
Welcome to a more tactically demanding football, City, to a competition where mistakes such as Gareth Barry's dawdling in possession get punished by clever players like Cavani. Napoli had even lost their best attacker by then, the excellent Ezequiel Lavezzi having hobbled off, but there is talent throughout a side supposed to be Group A's fourth team.
With Bayern Munich defeating Villarreal, and looking to dominate Group A, it could prove an almighty fight for second place. City will play better than this, and Vincent Kompany will surely not make as many mistakes again, but this felt a frustrating first outing in the Champions League for City.
This was the night that City's older supporters had been waiting for, a reward for their loyalty, for turning up even when their beloved team dropped into the third tier of English football scarcely 13 years ago.
The opposition were hardly unknowns, either. One of the most charismatic clubs in Serie A, Napoli also boasted some of the most admired attacking talents around in Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Lavezzi, a threat to City until limping off after 56 minutes.
Napoli also boasted a defence who used fair means and fouls to stop City.
From the opening whistle, City kept piecing together their passing moves, the ball spinning between the inventive feet of David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri, who signalled City's attacking intent with a low shot just wide. Yaya Toure sought to supplement attacks from deep midfield, leaving his station alongside Barry. Edin Dzeko offered the focus atop Mancini's 4-2-3-1 system.
The Bosnian was quickly involved, soon fouled by Gokhan Inler, then failing with a free header from Nasri's corner. Napoli were forced back, desperately defending their territory, occasionally illegally. Silva went past Christian Maggio once, then again and was punished with a late challenge.
The menace from the Italians was not merely physical. Aware of how Napoli's attackers like to drift wide, Mancini had deployed his most defensively rugged full-backs, Pablo Zabaleta and Kolarov, to guard the flanks but City remained slightly open, particularly through the middle. They became stretched at times, allowing Lavezzi to cause frequent problems, flying through the middle.
When Kompany slipped, Lavezzi advanced towards the box, just releasing his shot as Zabaleta slid in. Lavezzi's shot beat Joe Hart but not the crossbar. Silva, showing the variety of his game, then threw himself in the way of a Lavezzi shot.
City then enjoyed their best moment of the half, building quickly from the wreckage of a Napoli attack, Toure charging upfield before releasing Aguero. The little Argentine dummied Hugo Campagnaro, leaving his compatriot sliding across the turf. Aguero rolled the ball back to Toure, whose shot clipped the bar, a huge waste of highly promising situation.
The game remained finely balanced as the second half progressed. Napoli were always a concern on the break for City. When Hamsik darted down the right, his cross was overhit until retrieved by Juan Zuniga. He beat Zabaleta, and lifted in a cross to the far-post which Hamsik met first time, his shot eluding Hart but not Kompany on the line.
City seemed to be fading, missing the leadership and ball-winning of Nigel de Jong in midfield. When Barry dithered in possession after 68 minutes, Maggio seized the loose ball, powering through the middle, before sliding the ball down the inside-right channel to Cavani, whose shot flew through Hart's legs.
City rallied, Aguero turning Nasri's cross on to the bar, then equalising within six minutes. It had to come from one of the many free-kicks conceded by Napoli. When Inler fouled Zabaleta, the right-of-centre position was perfect for the left foot of Kolarov. He did not disappoint, sending the ball curling past the flat-footed De Sanctis.
The wall was hardly the greatest human construction in the history of the Champions League but nothing should detract from Kolarov's strike. Having launched a mass Poznan celebration, Kolarov was immediately withdrawn, having damaged his nose earlier, bringing Gael Clichy into the fray.
The last minutes were frantic. Kompany's lax back-pass almost gifted Napoli the winner but Hart was quick to the danger. City also went for it, the subs Adam Johnson and Carlos Tevez driving deep into enemy territory. Yet it was one of Mancini's starters, Silva, who should have earned a penalty when pushed over by Aronica within five yards of the additional assistant referee, who froze. (© Daily Telegraph, London)