City's slender hopes of qualification from the Group Stage evaporated but pride was salvaged in last nights encounter with the Spanish aristocrats...
So there we have it. City's 2012/13 Champions League campaign comes to an end to no great surprise but solace will be taken in the second half display which demonstrated that the Blues are more than capable of competing with the very best the continent has to offer. Once again a slow start was to prove the undoing of Mancini’s men. With barely ten minutes on the clock Benzema somehow ghosted in from the left past the dozing Maicon to finish easily against an exposed Hart and leave the home side with it all to do.
This was a bold starting line up from Mancini both in terms of player selection and the decision to start with the media derided 3-5-2 formation. In truth (and with the benefit of hindsight) criticism could be levelled at the manager on both fronts, City were far more comfortable and cohesive when switching to a conventional four at the back and Edin Dzeko’s discombobulated first half display had the crowd pining for the benched Carlos Tevez.
Without question the wingback system has its merits - namely on this occasion to negate the obvious threat of a certain Portuguese winger - but in such a big game it was a risky strategy from Mancini and pre game the press pack would have been rubbing their hands with glee. For the first half hour City were defensively confused and could quite feasibly have fallen two goals behind with a visibly fired up Ronaldo going close and Khedira being denied by some stolid last ditch defending.
Aside from a well worked chance for Maicon, whose charismatic presence and creative delivery on the right will see him attain cult status over the course of this season (defensive lapses not-withstanding) and a curling attempt from Kun Aguero comfortably tipped over the bar from Casillas, City were unable to offer a steady threat throughout the opening period.
Come half-time Kolarov had been removed from the field of play and Javi Garcia was given the opportunity to prove his worth to the City faithful and his former employees. Sharp in the tackle and covering well, it was comfortably his best 45 minutes in a blue shirt. His defensive qualities also enabled his compatriot David Silva to come to the fore, supported further up the field by Yaya. As equally impressive in his tenacity to win possession as he was in his twirling, pirouetting dribbling play and general use of the ball ‘Merlin’ demonstrated his irreplaceable qualities at the heart of City's forward scheming.
With the again peripheral Nasri then withdrawn for Tevez on the hour, Mancini rolled the dice and the resulting increase in tempo was enough to inspire a previously nervous crowd. As Arbeloa, the obvious weak link on this Real side stumbled into a challenge with Aguero the referee opted to point to the spot and perhaps harshly issue a second yellow card to the ex Liverpool fullback. The spot kick was rolled home. The stadium breathed with belief but the winner did not arrive. Humorously Ronaldo’s petulance was in evidence as was Nastasic's increasing competence but the clear opening for victory did not arrive against a savy Mourinho outfit.
It is hard to feel too great a disappointment when a side just has not performed as they can and City were at their best for very isolated spells throughout this competition. Dortmund’s emphatic victory in Amsterdam only sharpens the pang of underachievement, particularly in the double header against the Dutch champions – eminently beatable as demonstrated - whereas Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund will undoubtedly go far in this competition. What is important now is that City learn from the European experience – whether the drudge of the Europa League is to follow or not. As previously stated next season will be the litmus test for Mancini and his longevity with the club will undoubtedly rest on the 2013/14 Champions League campaign. However, the prospect of domestic glory retains its allure. For many fans, sitting pretty at the top of the EPL with key players approaching their best form will just about suffice...for now.
Man of the Match: David Silva