WithBorussia Dortmund beating Real Madrid elsewhere in Group D, bottom-placed City are now five points behind the second-placed Germans with three games to go. The Blue Moon has disappeared behind a cloud in Europe.
Brimming with talented individuals but still struggling to adapt collectively to the different currents in European waters, City’s £175.1 million starting line-up were given a lesson in the art of defending, passing and finishing by Frank de Boer’s excellent, young Dutch side, a team assembled for only £3.5 million.
If individual mistakes from the likes of Joleon Lescott scarred the display, throwing away a lead given by Samir Nasri, City were not helped by some of Roberto Mancini’s tactical changes.
The Italian, a good manager still waiting to convince in Europe, altered his defence from back four to back three; poor, dizzy Gaël Clichy almost required a map and compass to remind him where he was, having gone from left-back to centre-half to right wing-back. Mancini’s commitment to zonal marking will also come under renewed and acerbic scrutiny after more hapless defending at corners.
By the end, Mancini resembled a chef throwing rich ingredients into a pot, hoping a decent dish would materialise. By the end, City were 3-3-1-3 with Carlos Tévez behind an attack of Mario Balotelli, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Agüero. At times, as Mancini made his tweaks, he resembled the piano-playing Eric Morecambe lecturing Andre Previn with a “I’m playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order”. There was no shape, no belief, no thought.
No fight either. Barring Micah Richards, none of City’s players delivered. Ajax fans have a song that, roughly translated, salutes the qualities of hard work, of “blood, sweat and tears”, and such desire coursed through De Boer’s team. City’s attitude was not good enough and it hardly bode well for team spirit when two of players substituted, Lescott and James Milner, walked straight past Mancini with no acknowledgement on either side.
Yet it had all started promisingly for Mancini’s men, who seized the lead, albeit against the run of play, after 22 minutes. Richards was the catalyst, picking out Milner, who darted upfield, drifting from right to left. Agüero’s run dragged Ajax’s defence from its moorings, creating a gap for Nasri to run in to. Milner, shrugging off Niklas Moisander, found the Frenchman, who cut in from the left and curled a right-footed shot unerringly past Kenneth Vermeer.
The concert on the terraces continued. Nothing could silence the Dutch fans, a voice with ballad and banner. They had just been making their point about the monied nature of football in the 21st century when the £24 million Nasri scored. One group held up a banner in a corner of the Amsterdam Arena depicting a sheikh clutching a fistful of dollars. Another knot of fans waved a banner containing the words “Against Modern Football’’, a campaign raising concerns about the sport of Mammon. City fans could have been forgiven for wondering why Ajax then charged them €85 (£68.50) each to gain entry.
Ajax fans were making a general observation about the modern game, reminding the world of how their club sought to balance the books. Their team included seven graduates of the club’s fabled De Toekomst academy: Vermeer, Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen, Siem de Jong, Daley Blind, Ricardo van Rhijn and Ryan Babel.
Many rose to the occasion, perhaps with one eye on future moves, perhaps simply because De Boer filled them with ambition and created a framework for them to express themselves, particularly Eriksen. The Dane was full of deft touches, accepting one first-half ball from Lasse Schone, nudging it elegantly away from the wrong-footed Gareth Barry. The space created, Eriksen had Joe Hart scrambling to his left but the Dane’s 20-yarder slid wide.
Ajax’s 23-year-old captain and midfielder, De Jong, was another who enhanced his reputation. Van Rhijn, a swift, mobile full-back, kept gliding down the right, fashioning chances. Already a full Dutch international, the 21 year-old looks a huge prospect and the sound of Premier League scouts scrambling for Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport has already been heard.
Just before the break, Van Rhijn and De Jong combined beautifully. De Jong swept a pass out wide to Van Rhijn. With his second touch, the right-back drilled the ball into the area for De Jong, who had continued into the box. Shifting his weight cleverly, De Jong wrapped his foot around the ball in the manner of a Dutch Mark Hughes, sending the ball speeding into the net. It was a terrific goal .
Ajax fans continued with their drums, their songs, their paeans to their team. They carried on singing through the break, their rendition of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, so good that the City fans, who have sung it on their travels before, joined in.
Don’t worry about a thing? City had to. When Ajax won a corner after 57 minutes, Eriksen swept it over into an area supposedly protected by Mancini’s zonal-marking system. City’s defenders could still have attacked the ball. Lescott was too sluggish in reacting to the danger, allowing Moisander to head home.
Within six minutes, Mancini had replaced Lescott, the clear inference being that he blamed the England international for Moisander’s goal. Aleksandar Kolarov came on, going to left wing-back with Clichy tucking in as a third centre-half. Lescott, meanwhile, was walking past Mancini before turning towards the bench and shaking hands with the City subs.
Behind him, the Ajax choirs were in exceptional voice, the decibel level rising even higher after 68 minutes. Again City’s defence was found wanting. Vincent Kompany failed to move out smartly enough to close down Eriksen, who unleashed a shot which clipped Clichy and diverted past Hart.
Like a gambler on a losing streak in Vegas, Mancini played his final strong cards in a vain attempt to turn the game around. Tévez arrived, then Balotelli, but the discordant notes remained. Ajax fans all but played the Last Post for City’s Champions League hopes. City’s fans, to their credit, stood to applaud Aja