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Review of the Hart-inspired draw with Dortmund last night...
It is by no means an exaggeration to say that Joe Hart has singlehandedly ensured City live to fight another day in the Champions League after an inspired performance against the German champions. Mario Balotelli's ice cool penalty as the match neared the closing stages snatched the point, but even then there was still time for Hart to steal the limelight, thwarting Lewandowski at full stretch. Dortmund were a menacing swarm throughout with athleticism, pace and imaginative interplay frequently cutting swathes through City's defensive unit. Simply, they are the finest opposition seen at the Etihad for quite some time. It was only thanks to Hart's brilliance that City weren't dead and buried long before Balotelli stepped up to ignore the words of Weidenfeller and roll the ball past him. Defeat here and the stark prospect of elimination was staring Mancini & Co in the face.
On countless occasions Hart repelled those in yellow and black. The 1st half was a personal duel between him and the ‘Wunderkind' Mario Goetze, Hart twice diverting fierce drives onto the frame of the goal. In the 2nd period Hart was even busier as Dortmund turned the screw, denying Reus, Gundogan and Goetze again. In all England's No. 1 faced 18 shots on his goal - it was his best game for the club by some distance and arguably one of the greatest performances of any City goalkeeper in modern times. Even Wayne Rooney felt obliged to tweet his approval. There must be something in those opening bars of Champions League music that truly inspires the man between the posts.
Praise must go to Dortmund, who were only undermined by a goalkeeping masterclass and some occasionally insipid finishing. The goal they did score came when the fleet footed Reus read Rodwell's intentions and zipped away from the home defence to finish. The callow City midfielder was punished not for the first time this season for an underhit conservative pass in a dangerous area of the field. It may be some time before he appears in a game of this magnitude again. The goal encapsulated an already confused 2nd half display from the Blues with Rodwell in particular unsure of his function within the side. The tactical adjustment early in the second period did not work, although not much did on a night when too many individuals were well below par and the relentless pressure of the Germans and intensity of the match seemed to overwhelm generally.
Proceedings could have taken a very different tone had Aguero been able to demonstrate his more clinical side in the early exchanges. Indeed for long spells both sides were happy to trade blows with Weidenfaller also prominent ensuring this was a game to savour for goalkeeping connoisseurs. David Silva was positively impacting on the play as he managed to find space amidst the pressing ranks around him giving credence to the belief that he is getting close to his best. Zabaleta offered his usual ultimate commitment and has clearly developed his final ball as City could have prospered from a number of well delivered crosses from wide. He also appears to have removed his inclination to rashly dive into challenges and his diligence and coverage of the right hand touchline ensure that Richards and Maicon will have a struggle on their hands to get starting berths on the big occasions. And they were the positives for the team in Blue.
For many this was a game to forget. Yaya Toure had his worst game in months, possibly carrying a slight injury and undoubtedly untrusting of Rodwell beside him following Garcia's early departure. Kompany has the ability to convey the nature of the whole defence - cool and authoritative at best - jittery and alarmingly indecisive here. He picked up a booking to rule him out of the must win fixture in Amsterdam and his immediate return to form is an essential requirement to progress domestically and on the European stage. Nasri was withdrawn perhaps a little prematurely in a tactical move that did not bear fruit. Having said that his impact was minimal - on more than one occasion both he and Silva seemed to limit each others space - again for progress to ensue they need to find a way of playing in harmony. Dzeko failed to fire when given the chance to shine ahead of the unused Tevez.
One can choose from a number of Dortmund players as stand out performers - from Subotic in defence, harshly penalised for the handball perhaps, to Piszczek, through to Goetze, Gundogan and Reus as a creative unit. The boisterous German following and indeed the (not so) discreet smattering of away fans throughout the stadium will have been thrilled with their display.
Questions will be asked of Mancini in Europe and understandably so. The calibre of individual at his disposal is fitting to this stage, yet as a unit City appear nervy and inhibited when that music strikes up and the glare of attention is on them. The omission of Barry was understandable considering his lengthy absence and minutes since, but his reassuring presence was surely required here, with a 19 year old in central defence and an untested 21 year old holding a key role in defensive midfield. The exclusion of Tevez would also leave a few observers fans scratching their heads.
The Ronaldo inspired destruction of Ajax by Real Madrid ensures that they top the group. Taking for granted 6 points against Ajax, which will be no easy task, another 3 against either Real or Dortmund in Germany will most likely be required. As admirable as their football is, for City one hopes that Dortmund have peaked in this tournament too soon and Real can utilise their experience and glean maximum points from their head to head clashes, leaving City in a straight shoot out for 2nd place. The parallels with the ‘Group of Death' last year are clear. Mancini's men have it all to do.
Man of the Match: Joe Hart