A favourite chant amongst the Manchester City faithful is a surreal ditty declaring ourselves fans of the invisible man and stating that we’re not really here. Against Napoli I’d never heard it sung before with such lusty ironic glee.
A mere forty years after Malcolm Allison said we were going to ‘scare Europe to death’ prior to our first – and until last night – only venture into Europe’s elite tournament we were all set to finally cause a few heart palpitations at the very least and stake our place at the top table. The Champion’s League – Adidas Finale balls, ‘welcome to Matchday Five’, ‘that magical night in Barcelona’, fifth and sixth officials doing bugger all behind the goal lines and, most evocative of all, Handel’s ‘Zadok The Priest’ booming through the stadium. I’ve personally always hated the tune – it’s pretentious in the extreme and sounds like the alumnus of Cheltenham’s Ladies College all discovering the wonders of sex toys on the very same night.
That was of course until the vigorous strains of ‘These are the champions’ was being aimed at my own team. Suddenly, unsurprisingly, I loved it, the goose pimples duly peppering my skin and my face feeling like a thousand miniature acupuncturists pricking tiny needles into each pore.
Even knowing about the dangerous triumvirate of Hamsik, Lavezzi and Cavani beforehand and being a huge admirer of Inler (who Wenger really should have signed two years ago and saved himself an awful lot of bother) it was hard not to approach this encounter with images of Maradona from the mid-eighties spinning through my mind. Chunky, with an over-sized captain’s armband and bearing a confectionary brand upon his sky-blue shirt. I always imagined that his team-mates advertised something else entirely and that Mars simply denoted the planet he fell from.
During his mesmerising spell in Naples Diego almost single-handedly won two Serie A titles and knocked up the mother of Sergio Aguero’s missus. Small world.
At some point the shuffling of the deck would have to cease and Bobby would be forced to show his hand.
Speaking of Kun, would he start? After exploding into the English game with six goals in four of course he would.
What about Dzeko? Following his astonishing transformation and with six goals in four undoubtedly.
Tevez skulked into his tracksuit but surely even he knew his omission was inevitable.
Since the summer’s accruement of a further handful of superstars City fans have discussed squad rotation and Mancini’s first choice XI until our faces have turned an appropriate colour but at some point the shuffling of the deck would have to cease and Bobby would be forced to show his hand. Our first ever Champions League clash with a winnable domestic fixture a leisurely four days hence was always going to end such debates. So at this juncture our gaffer evidently favours a Kun/Edin partnership to tear up all before them and prefers the marauding lunacy of Kolorov to Clichy at left-back.
The latter eventually rescued us a point with a sublimely executed free-kick before promptly leaving with a splattered purple nose that resembled that of the slurring knight down the road.
Prior to such excitement the game had long settled into an endless pattern of intricate one-twos around the Napoli area which, when broken up by a superbly marshalled back-line, would swiftly turn into ominous counter-attacks that had me sweating like a glass blower’s arse. Until his premature departure on the hour mark Lavezzi prowled and scampered and achieved something no other forward has managed for quite some time – he made Kompany look fallible. Mancini pursued the heavily tatted El Pocho for most of the summer until Aguerro became available. I can see why.
As a unit Napoli proved incredibly difficult to break down; they suppressed the creative toil of the Twinkle Twins Silva and Nasri with the minimum of fuss and it was strangely pleasing to see that an Italian side – regardless of the multi-national components – are still masters of evenly distributing yellow cards throughout the team. Dirty bastards sure, but clever with it. The dark arts perfected by Gentile and Bergomi lives on.
Having played three games more this season I’d hoped superior fitness would show towards the end. It didn’t. As legs wearied the ding-dong helter-skelter aspect never let up and with two Italians stalking the touchline thirty-five attempts at goal disproves that particular stereotype. The catenaccio perfected by Herrera and Bearzot is dead.
What’s more City retain their unbeaten home record that now stretches back to December of last year.
Having steam-rollered all before them so far this season this was a brutal crash course in excellence for City; after acing every examination put before them suddenly Silva and co were frantically skim-reading textbooks trying to find a calculation or geometric sequence that might provide a breath through, ultimately to no avail.
But a point is a point, the lessons shall be learnt, and what’s more City retain their unbeaten home record that now stretches back to December of last year.
On Twitter tonight Napoli fans are delighted that their side managed to replicate their fantastic league displays on the main stage of Europe. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of a largely huffing, puffing City who lacked their usual inventive fizz and fluidity.
But the indomitable Bayern are next, we really are here, and the adventure has just begun.
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