Saturday, 17 March 2012

City vs Sporting Lisbon: Match Report

So close yet so far. City show a lot of Hart in a European fightback.

By Aaron Leggott

Our European journey once again came to an end in dramatic circumstances on Thursday night after a 95th minute header from Joe Hart was tipped past the post by Sporting's man between the sticks, Rui Patricio.

Photo: PA

Of course, the Blues went into this second leg trailing by a Xandão backheel back at the Estádio José Alvalade and you could sense the tension not just on the pitch, but in the stands as well. Mario Balotelli was a metaphor of frustration, and his needless challenge on former Liverpool full back Emiliano Insua on the half hour mark summed his first half performance up.

The resulting free kick was taken by Matias Fernández, whose effort was majestic, as he bent the ball into the bottom corner, giving Hart absolutely no chance. 

After grabbing that away goal, Sporting pushed on and City looked worryingly abject on the pitch. There seemed to be no real flair which we were witnessing just a few months ago, and you are starting to get the feeling that the pressure is starting to take it's toll on our carefully assembled star studded side.

Sporting fans pre-match with smoke bombs and
flares. They were elated after van Wolfswinkel
extended the lead
It is not just the players who are starting to show anxiety. The fans, who have spent the majority of the season sat on the edge of their seats in anticipation, were now in the same position, but this time in extreme anxiety at what was to follow.

And they had every reason to feel that way. After dropping three vital points at the Liberty Stadium last weekend, City were struggling both on the domestic and European front. Matters were not helped when Ricky van Wolfswinkel tapped home from close range to stretch the lead to 3-0 on aggregate, and gave City an almost impossible mountain to climb, needing four goals in 50 minutes.

At half time, the ineffective Adam Johnson, who looks increasingly like a liability towards the business end of the season, departed for Nigel de Jong, and it was a brave but a much needed change from manager Roberto Mancini, who needed to steel up the midfield and create a bit of stability in the middle of the park.

Sporting clearly felt the job was done and could be blamed for taking their foot off the pedal. They were made to pay for this mistake though after Sergio Aguero calmly finished Yaya Toure's through ball to give City fans some hope with 30 minutes to play.

And it got even better for the home side. After Renato Neto had brought down Aguero inside the area, referee Tom Hagen had no choice but to point to the spot. Up stepped Balotelli, who wasn't going to miss from 12 yards, and all of a sudden City were starting to believe that the impossible could indeed happen.

If one thing can be said about this current side, it is that they will never give up. Aguero was the inspiration back in January when we almost pulled back a three goal deficit against Manchester United, and he was once again in the middle of everything on a mild Spring night in Manchester. 

And it was the Argentine's tap in with ten minutes to go which put City firmly in pole position to grab something out of this tie. An Aleksandar Kolarov corner was flicked on by Edin Dzeko at the near post, and his header found Aguero, who wasn't going to miss from yards out, giving Patricio no chance in the Sporting goal.

You sensed that something great was going to happen. Sporting just looked lost, and a completely different side to the one that so easily dismantled City for three quarters of this tie. And whilst we did not cross the finish line successfully, the emotion showed by the team towards the end of this game indicates that we will fight to the bitter end for this Premier League title.

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