The Champions League arrived at the Etihad Stadium with customary drama as Manchester City fought out a richly entertaining 1-1 draw with Napoli on Wednesday night. Any fears that being debutants in the competition may stifle both clubs were dispelled within moments of the kickoff. From the outset, this was a match played between two teams that scented blood, knowing the importance of an early victory in what looks to be the most evenly matched group in the competition.
The match quickly settled into a pattern of attack and counter-attack – two new heavyweights on the European stage abandoning all inhibitions and playing without caution. The transition from Premier League to Champions League was clearly not going to lead to a change in mindset. This season’s team are an infinitely more expansive, enjoyable team to watch – a philosophy which stands City in a far greater stead than the cowardice which afflicted them last term.
Nevertheless, as will always be the case in contests between two extremely well-matched sides, chinks in the armour were exposed. Napoli’s attacking trident of Marek Hamsik, Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi constantly threatened with their irrepressible mixture of movement, endeavour and vision. As such, for every goal scoring opportunity the home side created – and of these there were many, Yaya Toure levelling the scores on the crossbar stakes being the best – the Neapolitans conjured a riposte. The spectacle was thrilling to watch, and from these devastating sucker punches Hamsik had a shot cleared off the line by the conveniently placed Vincent Kompany, whilst Blazim Dzemaili hit a shot over when well positioned. It was little surprise that Cavani’s goal came from a typically thrilling break.
Another pleasing characteristic Manchester City currently possess is the ability to react to adversity. Moments later, Aleksandar Kolarov was whipping a vicious free-kick over the wall, leaving Morgan De Sanctis flat-footed to level the scores. The intervening time had also seen Sergio Aguero, predatory in latching on to Samir Nasri’s left-footed cross, clip the crossbar.
If the Bulgarian looked bewildered as to the decision to substitute him immediately following his equaliser, he should perhaps contemplate his role in Napoli’s opener. Had he been less ponderous in returning to defence following the breakdown of an attack, he may have been in position to make the crucial interception and stop Cavani being released.
If criticism of Roberto Mancini is to be found, it is his selection of Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta at full-back. Napoli’s wing-backs often tucked infield on the defensive, forming an orthodox flat-back five, suffocating attacks by stifling space. The boundless energy of Gael Clichy and Micah Richards in bypassing the midfield to join attacks overwhelmed Wigan Athletic at the weekend. Perhaps they would have been better suited than the more conservative Kolarov and Zabaleta.
On the one hand, City have failed to win a potentially crucial home game. On the flip side, they performed with wit, verve and abandon. The fearlessness with which Mancini sends his team out to attack is commendable, the interchanging between David Silva, Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Nasri often spellbinding. A foundation has been built from which the more experienced Bayern Munich and Villarreal can be attacked, and beaten.
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