Pellegrini's back problems proving a major headache
Man City 4 Viktoria Plzen 2
The England goalkeeper's much-anticipated return to club duty did not pass without some Hart ache, despite Manchester City retaining their hopes of catching Bayern Munich.
City's place in the knockout stages of the Champions League was secure prior to kick-off, but a hard-earned victory over Group D whipping boys Viktoria Plzen offered Manuel Pellegrini further evidence that his defensive problems extend beyond the identity of his goalkeeper.
Recalled after losing his place to Costel Pantilimon, Joe Hart could have been forgiven for thinking the visit of the Czechs represented little more than catching and kicking practice. It proved anything but a comfortable night, Hart beaten twice after Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri had given Pellegrini's side the advantage.
Hart could hardly be blamed for the lapses that allowed Tomas Horava and then Stanislav Tecl to equalise. The focus for that lies entirely with a far from impressive central-defensive pairing of Joleon Lescott and Martin Demichellis.
Fortunately, while City's defensive reshuffles cause concern, whatever attacking formation they favour excels. Called from the bench, Alvaro Negredo tapped in City's third on 79 minutes, four minutes after coming on, and despite their entertaining defensive detours another three points were accumulated when Edin Dzeko headed the fourth on 88 minutes.
The group stages were always destined to end in somewhat of an anticlimax, Pellegrini's side having secured qualification with two games to spare, which is why the Etihad still feels like a venue adjusting to a demanding new environment.
There was no cacophony that you would expect on a European night to greet the sides, and even the more impressive City moves were greeted with lukewarm applause you would associate with an exhibition bout. The animation will come as the prized scalps start to be taken, knockout football being what truly defines this competition.
City fans still give the impression they are pleased actually to be here rather than seriously entertaining notions of winning it.
After the successive roasting of Premier League opponents, the home faithful may have anticipated another goal glut against the Czechs, especially the way they started. Nasri hit the bar from 25 yards on 14 minutes and volleyed wide from closer range three minutes later.
Viktoria Plzen, with no points from their opening four fixtures, took an admirable, ambitious approach and Frantisek Rajtoral and Michal Duris ought to have opened the scoring, the former with a brilliant solo run, before Aguero broke through with a penalty on 33 minutes.
The Argentinian is the class act who will make City -- despite their recent lack of pedigree in Europe -- a team for others to avoid. Rajtoral was adjudged to have handled Aguero's cross, and the striker calmly converted.
It did not end the Czech resistance, however, Horava smashing a deserved equaliser two minutes before half time, a sweet right foot across Hart denying the morale-enhancing clean sheet the reprieved 'keeper so badly sought.
Hart must be wondering if his luck is out, sitting out comfortable victories and returning when the defence looks so vulnerable, Lescott and Demichelis not convincing anyone they will be capable of withstanding more formidable European opposition in the new year.
Pellegrini made a change at the break, Aguero's impressive shift ended early for Jesus Navas.
The impact was almost immediate, the Spaniard feeding Nasri, who sent Edin Dzeko clear on goal, but his shot was tame at 'keeper Matus Kozacik.
Navas also shot over from a tight angle as City hunted the goals that would make their trip to the Allianz Arena more meaningful.
Fernandinho thought he had grabbed his first City goal on 62 minutes -- a glancing header from Nasri's cross -- only to be denied by Kozacik. Lescott also miskicked with the goal gaping from six yards.
Pellegrini than paid the ultimate tribute to the visitors, summoning Yaya Touré from the bench, a player he would surely have preferred to rest for the full 90 minutes. The Ivorian's first contribution on 64 minutes was a part in City's second for Nasri, a trademark run and pass to Navas, whose cross was volleyed home with poise by the Frenchman.
If Pellegrini thought order was restored, he was mistaken as the defensive vulnerabilities reappeared and Plzen equalised for the second time on 69 minutes.
Lescott was ponderous and Tecl had time and space to pick his spot. Pretty woeful defending. Pellegrini turned to his bench again and Negredo needed just four minutes to repair the damage. Dzeko headed a fourth on 88 minutes from James Milner's cross.
Hart, meanwhile, was still busy. He pushed a 25-yard strike from Daniel Kolar over the bar and proved his reflexes remain intact to deny Rajtoral another from close range.
"England's No 1," sang the City fans. At least the first priority -- earning the right to be seen as City's No 1 -- has begun. (© Daily Telegraph, London)