Such a little thing, but the difference it made was grave. Roberto Mancini’s decision to throw caution to the wind in the Premier League – rewarded with 42 goals and 11 wins from the club’s opening 12 games – is epitomised in his choice of full-back. With the regularity of clockwork, Micah Richards and Gael Clichy find themselves as the furthest forward Manchester City player, released towards the by-line by an adroit David Silva pass or Sergio Aguero flick. In the Champions League, they have rarely been called upon. On this most important of nights in Naples, they were most conspicuous by their absence; the Premier League leaders lacking that extra attacking support in succumbing to a potentially crucial 2-1 defeat to Napoli.
Neither full-back had the requisite concentration or pace to keep up with their direct opponents. Repeatedly, systematically, the Italian side switched play with accurate diagonal passes, imploring their wing-backs onward. Not once did either Kolarov or Zabaleta wise up to this. Their positional sense and concentration levels sub-par, they turned to find a blue shirt streaking beyond them, closing in on goal. Twice in successive attacks the Bulgarian left-back was caught snoozing in such a manner; the post and Joe Hart respectively keeping City in the game. If they were picked for their durability, it was evidently the wrong choice.
Kolarov, give him his due, at least displayed admirable ambition in supporting City’s attacks. However, such was the appalling standard of his delivery on the night that his presence often seemed more of a hindrance than a help. How the assurance of Gael Clichy was craved for.
However, although Kolarov’s crossing was, by-and-large, hopeless, at least he had the foresight to join in the attacks as City chased the game. His Argentine counterpart on the right was, by contrast, anonymous. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, yet it became immediately obvious from the game’s opening exchanges that the brute force and adventure of Micah Richards was precisely the antidote to the charges of Dossena. Ezequiel Lavezzi, so busy working between the inside and outside-left position as part of the front three, revelled against the tepidity of Zabaleta’s approach. Freed of any defensive duties against his compatriot, all of his energies could be expended into terrorising the City defence. Against the more robust, proactive approach of Richards, this simply would not have been allowed.
Napoli’s flexibility extended to their defensive third of the pitch too. Ahead in the second-half, and out of possession for long spells, Dossena and Maggio’s versatility saw either player tuck into the full-back position, dependent on the angle of the City attack. Fully aware of David Silva’s propensity to roam infield, the pitch became narrowed, space constricted; the attacks stultified. The game cried out for a marauding run from deep on the right, allowing the floating Silva and Samir Nasri the option of an outside ball. With the exception of Kyle Walker, no full-back in the Premier League has matched Micah Richards for willingness and quality in this respect. Again, how it was sorely missed at the Stadio San Paolo.
The result of this selection error is that City are staring down the barrel of Thursday night football. Napoli, one point ahead of City, face an abject Villarreal side yet to pick up a point in this season’s competition. Unlikely as Napoli failure is, the Blues’ task is altogether more difficult; defeating a polished Bayern Munich side which infamously defeated City 2-0 at the Allianz Arena in September. The Europa League beckons with its unwanted, unwelcoming embrace. Minute details make the biggest of difference at the top level. One feels that a little more impetus from full-back may have set City on a totally different course.
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