Ajax 3-1 Manchester City: Ajax leaves City praying for a miracle in the race for Champions League qualification
In this group of champions, the roundly lauded “group of death”, Manchester City finds itself peering out through the pit of the grave.
Dutch hosts, accomplished and ruthless, applied the penultimate nail in the coffin of the English champions leaving their leader Roberto Mancini praying for “a miracle”.
He’ll need one just to ensure his flaky team of talented individuals start to compete at this level.
Since Karim Benzema’s leveller in the chastening ten-minute onslaught at the Bernabeu, City has looked inept in the face of hungrier, supremely drilled opponents.
Lady Luck didn’t so much as smile upon the boys in blue, but cradled and tickled their soft under belly whilst reassuring them everything is going to be ok in allowing them to cruelly snatch a point from a dominant Borussia Dortmund three weeks ago.
But last night she deserted them, knowing it was time for a team worth around 172 million more than their modest counterparts, to prove that they can fight their own battles.
It had all started so well in Amsterdam. After riding an early flurry of pressure, City took the lead through Samir Nasri’s clinical finish in the 22nd minute, after some good work from James Milner and Sergio Aguero.
However, the capitulation that followed simply reaffirmed the suspicion that this side, and indeed their manager, simply have not yet grasped what is required on the European stage.
Three games in, the same squad that ruled on home soil just over five months ago find themselves six points behind group leaders Dortmund and five behind Madrid in second.
They have seldom looked so curiously inept during Mancini’s reign. Seim De Jong’s equaliser was soft in the extreme but the host’s second, arriving straight from a corner, epitomised the defensive frailties that have dogged City throughout the new campaign.
It doesn’t help, of course, that their boss is doing his best Claudio Ranieri impression at the moment.
Starting with the 4-2-3-1 formation which has served his side so successfully in recent times, the former Inter boss reverted to a flat 4-4-2 before bizarrely scrambling his pieces at half time into the 5-3-2 formation he has so desperately desired to pull off this term.
Unfortunately for the seemingly repressed tactician screaming inside the Italian, this is when City has looked its most calamitous.
Throw zonal marking into the mix and you have a hybrid of some of the worst traits of foreign management we’ve seen in Britain over the last decade.
Gael Clichy, an out and out left-back if ever there was one, looked like an abandoned boy scout lost in the woods as Mancini handed him a map of squiggles and instructed him to move east to the uncharted territory of one of the centre-back positions to accommodate Aleksandar Kolarov.
In fairness, the move owed much to the fact Joleon Lescott endured a torrid evening, the England international momentarily losing the ability to jump, as Niklas Moisander pounced during the circus of Ajax’s second.
Both he and James Milner failed to acknowledge the man pulling, and indeed cutting the strings from the sidelines when they were hooked from the debacle, and that is what should worry City fans more than anything.
This time last season, barring Carlos Tevez’s decision to temporarily retire from the game, the club was in harmony and all pulling towards what was widely acknowledged to be the right direction.
Now, just like their flustered left-back/centre-back, woefully unlucky to divert Christian Eriksen’s shot past his own keeper for Ajax’s third, they seem to be following an unfamiliar route. As the home ground thumped and howled and the match reached its conclusion, through squinted eyes one could just make out City were deployed in a 3-3-1-3 formation.
A tell tale sign that it’s nearly curtains for yet another failed tilt at success on foreign shores for the new tinker man.
Jamie Murphy, football correspondent