Despite the enticing glamour of a tie with a veritable European giant, the build-up to Manchester City’s first leg away to Porto lacked the fanfare and sweaty nervousness that now accompanies every single one of City’s league games. Indeed, the atmosphere surrounding City’s title challenge is one of unrelenting pressure, so much so that a brief escape to Portugal seemed like just what was needed.
By half time, it was clear that this would be no holiday. Porto’s ruthless pressing game meant City were trapped in their own half for large patches of the first 45 minutes, while the home side needed only one clear-cut chance to make it 1-0. It felt like another arduous lesson for a team yet to assert themselves as a consistent force in Europe.
Fast forward to the end of the 90, and a praiseworthy comeback had taken place via Álvaro Pereira’s looping own goal and substitute Sergio Agüero’s late tap-in. For all the insistence that City’s wealth should equal instant trophies, they spent weekdays of the first half of the season learning just how unforgiving European competition could be. Arguably, that lesson began in earnest last March at a freezing Lobanovskyi Dynamo Stadium.
It may only be the Europa League, but Thursday evening showed what may be the start of City’s transformation into a team that is as fearsome abroad as they are at home.
It may only be the Europa League, but Thursday evening showed what may be the start of City’s transformation into a team that is as fearsome abroad as they are at home. Their maiden Champions League campaign was, to be blunt, harrowing. They fell victim to Napoli’s lethal counter-attacks at both the Etihad and the San Paolo, performed poorly in the intense atmosphere of the Allianz Arena (the game itself has been forgotten in light of the Tevez affair), and just barely squeaked past a tenacious Villarreal side at home. The only comfortable win came away against the same Villarreal team, minus a few more key players. By the time Bayern at home rolled around, wide-eyed excitement had turned to weariness. Personally, I was glad to see the back of the competition – six games comprised of frustration and confusion, punctuated with brief moments of joy and false hope. Many of us came to the same resigned conclusion, that City just weren’t yet good enough for elite European competition.
It would be foolish to claim one half of a two-legged tie has absolved all those issues, but to claim not just an away goal, but a win against a team who had not lost at the Estádio do Dragão all season was impressive indeed. Porto may have lost coach André Villas-Boas and deadly striker Falcao over summer, but they remain a side overflowing with talent, particularly in midfield general João Moutinho and the dangerous Hulk.
The return of Yaya Touré was a key factor here. He may have only been gone for six weeks, but his absence has highlighted just how crucial a player he is for Mancini and City. No other midfielders in the squad, and few in world football, are as complete a central midfielder as Yaya. In the first half, when City were largely on the back foot, it was largely a sentimental pleasure to see the Ivorian back in a City shirt, but come the second half he began to assert himself. Agüero’s late winner was made by the younger Touré brother, bursting into the box in trademark fashion before selflessly squaring to the Argentine.
It was a relief to have Mario Balotelli back as well. Though it must have been galling for Edin Džeko, three years his senior, to make way as soon as Balotelli was available, this game showed why the Italian is the superior striker. He may not have scored, but Pereira’s own goal was largely a result of Balotelli being in the right place at the right time and exerting pressure on the left back. He came close to scoring in the first half as well. Showing excellent awareness and technique, he received the ball with his back to goal, drifted past Porto’s defenders and spun, unleashing a fierce low shot which Helton did well to save firmly.
With no game this weekend, City’s fans, players and manager can relax a little, enjoying some time away from the pressure cooker of the title race. The tie is not yet won, but City can take heart from an impressive and very encouraging first leg result. At the very least, Thursday night (ITV1) showed signs that Mancini’s side may finally be adjusting to the unique rigours of Europe.
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