Could the passage to the final-32 of the Europa League have gone any smoother? Manchester City confirmed their qualification from what initially looked like a tricky group containing Juventus, Lech Poznan and Red Bull Salzburg with a 3-0 defeat of the Austrian outfit on Wednesday evening.
As has become commonplace due to the competition’s convoluted format, the City of Manchester Stadium met their progression in muted fashion. As each of City’s goals pierced the back of the net, the impression was given that the celebrations were tinged with regret. City are today a club whose immense riches and stature demands Champions League football. European nights are simply meant to be more exciting, more glamorous, than this.
City gave their loyal supporters much to ruminate over. Mario Balotelli and Adam Johnson have rarely seen first team action this season – Balotelli admittedly missing almost three months of football injured. Nevertheless, City’s football is accused of being conservative, inherently cautions without them. Carlos Tevez has spent much of the season carrying the burden of the team’s attack on his shoulders as David Silva and James Milner struggle to adapt to their new roles in an altogether more defensive line-up than they were used to at their previous clubs.
There is a refreshing buzz of anticipation each time the two youngsters receive the ball. Balotelli possesses a combination of brute force and imagination which is rare in one so young. Often hidden by his renowned combustibility, there is an innate confidence within him which is evident by his directness in possession. Johnson on the other hand, is altogether much more subtle. He possesses a wonderful ability to drift in and out of challenges. Few footballers in this country possess feet and an imagination as quick as his. Once again cutting infield, this time from the left-wing on to his right foot, he sealed the game with a curled right-footer into the bottom corner. No doubt about it, when given the opportunity from the start, Johnson more often than not produces something memorable.
Little wonder that more experienced members of City’s squad were energised by their youthful presence. “Mario
Roberto Mancini praised their contribution too, saying: “They could become among the best players in the world, strong players. They need to work hard all the time. They both scored fine goals but they must carry on.” The victory may therefore have been mundane, but the performances of Balotelli and Johnson offset it spectacularly. With a little trust, faith and cajoling, these two will star in European games far more significant than Wednesday night’s.