Before the game there was genuine concern amongst Manchester City fans for the blues who had travelled out to Naples. The watchwords were ‘Stick together’ because supporter lore dictates that Italian hoolies like to pick off those separated from the pack. If only such advice had reached the players. Time and again the devastating trio of Hamsik, Carvani and Lavezzi, all backed up by the tireless intelligence of Maggio, managed to isolate the individual components that had previously formed such a formidable collective this season. Kompany floundered, falling to the deck on numerous occasions like a fallen icon; Lescott was hustled into old habits; Kolorov’s limitations were horribly exposed. The latter in particular had something of a stinker throughout, wasting decent possession down the left flank so often that Toure began to look right for his distribution at every opportunity.
The omission of Clichy and Richards in the full-back roles was baffling in the extreme. In positions that Mancini likes to rotate on a weekly basis they have made themselves indispensible yet they were employed on Saturday against a player making his first start for over a year (Ben Arfa) and a callow but promising youth (Sammy Ameobi) instead of nullifying the lightning quick, wily movement of the Neapolitan widemen. Going forward their absence was even more pertinent; City’s passing machine would whir into life, patiently tip-tapping triangles until finally a gap appeared out wide. Thereupon Zabaleta or Kolorov would produce a tepid delivery and the move broke down. This pattern played out on a loop to such a degree that it was like watching a week’s worth of Dave and the sight of Adam Johnson huddled into his tracksuit top on the bench only exacerbated frustrations further. As City discovered at the Etihad in September Napoli are a highly-organised unit and the best way to inflict damage is down the sides. Zabba and AK are favourites of mine and I love them dearly but by Christ they cannot cross a ball to save their lives.
In Bobby we trust but the boss-man almost deliberately tests our faith at times with such strange decisions.
Personally – should City fail to progress from what has indeed proven to be a group of death – I’m all in favour of sacking off the Europa entirely.
Concentrating on team selection however only unfairly distracts from a superb Napoli display. Carvani continues to impress greatly whilst Lavezzi is a scurrying raging bull who deceives all with his inked arms and head-down running style by suddenly producing a moment of exquisite finesse. On their day these two would benefit any team in the world and I include Barcelona in that assessment. The Italians deserved their victory through shading the second half which ultimately dissolved into end-to-end basketball as City grew ever more desperate.
It also distracts from a decent City performance, arguably only their second in the Champion’s League so far. To slip into manager lingo for a moment there were an awful lot of positives to take from this game and lessons to be learnt. Our wealth of talent and the scintillating league form can only prepare the lads to a certain extent. Though individuals such as Silva and Toure can hardly be deemed naïve at this level as a team they are debutants in a harsh new environment that has different rules and nuances. Bayern took them to school. Last night Napoli bullied them in the playground. These disappointments will surely lay the groundwork for future, more fruitful continental ventures and the really encouraging thing for City fans is that truthfully only a tweak or two is required.
For now though it looks increasingly like third spot and the ‘consolation’ of the Europa League. Which means potentially a raft of Thursday games that consequently pushes domestic fixtures back to Sundays. This could prove to be inconvenient at best and a major hindrance at worse as United will often get first dibs on points as the title challenge hots up after Christmas. Personally – should City fail to progress from what has indeed proven to be a group of death – I’m all in favour of sacking off the Europa entirely and fielding the kids. Because the Champion’s League was a glorious adventure worth taking, but nothing else besides should detract from a title bid that is City’s sole masterplan.