There have been wobbles, dropped points, inexplicable errors and confused tactical shuffles but Manchester City have rediscovered their domestic form, largely thanks to the champion spirit exuded by Edin Dzeko at Craven Cottage and The Hawthorns in recent weeks.
Still absent, though, is a maiden win in Europe following a late capitulation in Madrid and a fortuitous point claimed from Dortmund after one of the most dominant away performances seen at Etihad Stadium in years. The past, however, according to Vincent Kompany, is “irrelevant”.
The Premier League champions take to Amsterdam ArenA on Wednesday night knowing full well that anything other than a win will leave their hopes of qualification from Group D of the Champions League in a perilous state.
For Roberto Mancini, a manager who has never prospered in Europe – two quarter-final appearances with Inter are the sum of six campaigns in Uefa’s premier club competition – three points are essential and he will rely on the influence and inspiration of his three pillars of dependability, Joe Hart, Kompany and Yaya Toure, to guide them through this tricky fixture.
Yet, there are question marks over their reliability after a less than stellar start to 2011-12. Hart was (almost) unbeatable against Dortmund but has looked fallible on his travels, most notably in Poland for England and to some extent in the 3-2 loss to Real Madrid. He may not like it, but Hart has kept just one clean sheet thus far, three fewer than at this stage a year ago.
Yaya Toure, a match-winner on his day, has yet to recapture the form that had many hail the Ivorian as the most complete midfielder in world football last year, whilst Kompany is a shell of the impenetrable wall that led to him being named Premier League Player of the Season as he skippered his side to final day glory.
The trio were vital to the success City enjoyed and although David Silva pitter-pattered to much acclaim, Sergio Aguero banged in crucial goals and Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli entertained in their own unique ways, the steady three that run down the spine of Mancini’s side were consistently brilliant and vice-versa.
Surprisingly Kompany, of all people, has found the going tough this year. The tactical tinkering of Mancini, attempting to integrate a 3-5-2 style and the constant rotation of his full-backs, has undoubtedly created unnecessary problems for his Belgian captain and it has shown on the pitch.
Gone is the sure-footedness that had him labelled as the best centre-half in Europe five months ago and in its place is an uncertainty in his positioning and decision making. His suicidal and clumsy dawdling on the West Brom halfway line indirectly led to James Milner’s sending off and Kompany’s reaction was telling – he knew he’d blundered.
Yaya Toure was fantastic in the Bernabeu, particularly as he careered through the heart of the Madrid defence to lay the ball into Dzeko’s feet for their second goal. However, this was the exception rather than the sight that caused punters to sit back and gasp last year – a sight City fans will be longing for in Amsterdam. The statistics for the hulk of a midfielder are telling: Yaya Toure has been a victim of a shuffle in style.
On average, he hits more shots per game (2.4 to 2), plays more key passes (2 to 1.7) and completes more successful dribbles (1.4 to 1.2) than in the last Premier League season. But defensively, there are fewer interceptions (0.5 to 1.2) and tackles (0.8 to 1.7) – a product of the signing of Javi Garcia, perhaps. Needless to say, Mancini clearly wants the 29-year-old in a more advanced position where he can better utilise his attacking prowess. The problem is adjustment.
Fortunately these teething problems are fixable. Hart has shown some of his best form in Europe, even if you include the late Ronaldo strike that some would put down as his fault. Kompany is too accomplished to struggle for so long – indeed, it is a surprise he hasn’t conquered this malaise already. A traditional Yaya Toure gallop up the field is perhaps the best metaphor for City’s season too – slow to get going, but devastating in full bluster.
Javi Garcia and Silva are ruled out of the game in Holland, meaning the value of Mancini’s three most time-tested commodities is multiplied. They must deliver for the Italian.
Ajax, though winless in Group D, are, aside from the 4-1 reverse to Madrid, undefeated at home and Frank de Boer’s charges will be intent on securing a positive result. The statistics are conflicting, though: the Dutch side haven’t won in three but City have lost three of their last four European away games. Something has to give.
City are fortunate to be able to count on Hart but Mancini warned of continuing an unwelcome trend when asked about his side’s alarming rate of conceding chances to their opposition. In just two Champions League games, the club have faced 50 attempts on goal, prompting the 47-year-old to remark: “It is difficult not to concede chances. We had a bad game against Dortmund, but it is important we don’t give away so many chances to score.”
In truth, it won’t matter how City claim their first win of their second Champions League campaign, something Kompany reiterated in the pre-game press conference: “We’re a very disciplined team and we have shown we have a great capacity to react, and tomorrow is a different game, a different set-up and it’s just important to win.”
A win will not only provide City’s European ambitions with a much-needed shot in the arm, it will complete the transference of a domestic turn of form to a competition they must see the latter stages of. And for that, Mancini needs the three stars to align if City are to ensure last season’s group stage failure is not repeated.