The richest club in Britain and runaway leaders of the Barclays Premier League face Group Stage elimination in their first Champions’ League campaign. Last night’s defeat to Napoli in the San Paolo stadium leaves Manchester City in third place in Group A with just one match-day remaining. City will need to beat Bayern Munich, who wrapped up top spot last night with a comfortable victory over Villareal, and will be relying on the Spaniards, who’ve lost all their Champions’ League matches so far, to take at least a point from their encounter with the Italian outfit. The chances of match-day six producing this combination of results are slim to say the least, and it looks like City will have to make do with playing in the Europa League after Christmas.
The match itself was, to my mind, the best that the Champions’ League has offered up so far this season. Group A is by far the most competitive group in the competition and, for many pundits, the only group really worthy of the competition, the others being composed of two good teams and two weaker teams, so it is no surprise that the best games have emerged from this group. A must win game for both sides in terms of progression in the competition, the match had the feel of a bona-fide cup tie, and was hopefully a preview of things to come in future rounds.
The atmosphere within the San Paolo was electrifying, Napoli has a reputation for being a tough place to come, with hugely passionate fans who can create an extremely intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams, both fans and players. It certainly lived up to its billing. Manchester City started the game well, passing the ball confidently and keeping possession in the opening ten minutes in an attempt to quieten the crowd. Indeed Yaya Toure and Mario Balotelli both had efforts in the early stages as City seemed to be handling the pressure. Napoli hit back on the counter attack, with Hamsik testing Hart from Lavezzi’s cross. Encouraged, Napoli began to create chances using the pace, dribbling and quick, accurate passing of their front three, Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik, all three caught the eye with great performances. Lavezzi had a volley blocked from Dossena’s cross, Inler stung the palms of Hart with a long range drive and Lavezzi’s dribbling prowess was causing City real problems. When Cavani glanced Lavezzi’s near post corner past Hart, I have to say, the goal had been coming. Napoli were in the ascendency and City were on the ropes for a few minutes, Cavani latched on to Lavezzi’s through-ball and lashed a vicious shot into the side netting. City regained their composure however, and on 33 minutes David Silva took advantage of a terrible clearance by Aronica by rifling a low shot towards goal which, keeper De Sanctis got down to parry, but could only push out to the waiting Mario Balotelli, who tapped into the empty net on his return to Italy.
Napoli started the second half very much on the front foot and took the lead again on 49 minutes, this time Dossena getting behind Zabaleta to pull the ball back perfectly for the arriving Cavani, who finished sweetly with a side-foot into the corner. Napoli stepped up the pressure as Hamsik saw his effort blocked by Lescott and Inler put a good chance wide. City rallied but neither Silva nor Balotelli could test De Sanctis with their efforts. Meanwhile Joe Hart kept City in the game with saves from Maggio and Lavezzi; before Hamsik hit the post, cutting in from the right after receiving a fantastic cross-field ball from Cavani , who was emptied by Kompany for his trouble; the latter receiving a yellow card.
The last ten minutes saw Napoli drop a little deeper as they looked to hold on to what would be a famous victory. City, to their credit, kept pushing for the equaliser, which would have improved their situation in the group slightly, however it wasn’t to come, Balotelli heading over on the stretch from Nasri’s cross and then having an effort saved by De Sanctis. At the final whistle the stadium erupted as Napoli held on for a vital victory in their debut Champions’ League season, they now travel to Spain knowing that a victory there will see them into the knockout stages. Manchester City, on the other hand, will entertain Bayern Munich at Eastlands, knowing that even a famous victory may well not be enough to keep them from slumping into the second tier of European competition.
This article was commissioned by and published on http://www.euro-2012-blog.com/ . First published on 10/11/11.