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Manchester City’s Nasri And Zabaleta Shut Champions League Door On Roma

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THERE have not been too many nights since Manchester City started dining at the top table of European football to provoke these scenes of jubilation and by the time it was all done it was tempting to wonder whether this may be a turning point when it comes to the club’s inability to embrace the Champions League.

A turning point? We have heard that one before, usually followed by another disappointment and more promises that it will be different next time. Yet City have been spared from dropping into the Europa League and the relief was considerable. They will be in Monday’s draw for the knockout stages of the competition that really matters to them and, though there has undoubtedly been a sharp deterioration in Serie A, there was a wonderful sense of togetherness attached to the way City overcame Italy’s second-placed side courtesy of those second-half goals from Samir Nasri and Pablo Zabaleta.

They came up against a shrieking, firecracking pit of noisy bias and they had to contend with a significant list of absentees in the form of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré and Sergio Agüero. True, their team was still littered with expensively assembled recruits but David Silva was restricted to a substitute’s role and the fact remains that City set out without their captain, their best two midfielders and a striker who was in red-hot form before injuring a knee. There have been times in the Champions League when they have looked weighed down by an inferiority complex. Not here.

Nasri may never score a better goal for City but, as Pellegrini pointed out, this was a collective effort on a night of fine goalkeeping from Joe Hart and some resilient defending once the Premier League champions had got to grips with Gervinho’s sporadic bursts of acceleration. City will still need to improve, with Barcelona and Real Madrid among the six possible teams they will face when the competition resumes in February, but at least they can now tackle this competition with a new sense of belief.

Martín Demichelis and Eliaquim Mangala helped to make sure that Kompany was not missed too badly. Hart did make one mistake, when he missed a corner and was spared by Demichelis’s clearance, but this was a fine night otherwise for the England goalkeeper.

It featured some important saves when Roma were on top in the opening exchanges and the best one of the night to turn Kostas Manolas’s header against a post later on.

Nasri managed his first goal of the season and it was a wonderful shot to put his team in a position of command. James Milner, indefatigable on the left side of City’s attacking quartet, made the little decoy run that helped to create the space from which Nasri cut inside. He was at an angle from where not many players would have taken on the shot but he struck the ball with power and precision and it was still rising, from just over 20 yards, as it flew in off Morgan De Sanctis’s right post.

That goal meant Roma had to score twice to remove City from the second qualifying place in Group E. There was still half an hour to go but it was not long before the television cameras had picked out Adem Ljajic on the bench and we saw the full anguish of what it meant for Rudi García’s team. Ljajic had been substituted and had his shirt pulled over his head, covering his face and possibly in tears.

Gervinho, so unrecognisable from the listless figure who was once on the edges at Arsenal, had been a difficult opponent for Zabaleta in the opening half and there were other times when he switched to the right and started to menace Gaël Clichy. Gervinho’s elusiveness and fast, direct style, coupled with the subtle touches of Francesco Totti, immediately started to cause problems during Roma’s early pressure but Hart was showing his big-game qualities and that gave City the platform to feel their way into the game and eventually take control.

Their problem in the first half was that, without Agüero, they did not have the penetration and movement in attack to trouble their opponents. Edin Dzeko looked short of full fitness, having just returned from a month out injured, and there were moments to remind us how difficult it may be for them to get by without Agüero during his rehabilitation from damaged knee ligaments.

There were, however, flickers of encouragement before half-time. Milner had tested De Sanctis twice and when City came back out for the second half they played with the authority of a side that knew Roma were vulnerable. Zabaleta’s goal arrived four minutes before the end and it was a reflection of their attacking instincts that City’s right-back was so far advanced at that point of the match.

This time Nasri provided the shooting opportunity and Zabaleta picked out the bottom corner to rid City of any lingering nerves and remind us as well about the importance of Agüero’s stoppage-time winner against Bayern Munich two weeks earlier. – The Guardian

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