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Jack: From Russia with love; City's massive three points

The Canadian Press
10/23/2013 3:27:29 PM
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On every path towards success come moments of trouble, trials in which those making the journey must overcome to help them continue down the road and believe they can reach the end.

In the 93rd minute of Wednesday's match in Russia, that moment for Manchester City's Champions League journey took place.

Having dominated the game for large patches, City found themselves holding just a one-goal advantage when CSKA Moscow's talisman Keisuke Honda arrived at the back post unmarked to receive a ball that look destined to give City that sinking Champions League feeling once again.

As the ball sat up perfectly for the Japanese international to swing his preferred left leg towards it, images of the club's late loss at Real Madrid last season will have flooded the minds of City fans everywhere.

That game at the Bernabeu was supposed to be the turning point. Under Roberto Mancini, City had failed to get out of their group in their first year of the Champions League, despite getting a respectable 10 points, narrowly losing out to giants Bayern Munich and the competitions pure entertainers in Napoli.

In Madrid, they kicked off their second Champions League campaign as Premier League champions and had a swagger and belief that they now belonged on the top table amongst the biggest clubs in the game. Their second half performance that day was outstanding and they fully deserved the lead they took with five minutes left, through Aleksandar Kolarov, but their hearts were broken into bits when Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo scored in the last three minutes to send City home with nothing.

City were shellshocked, their manager turned on goalkeeper Joe Hart for his open and candid comments after the game and they never recovered, failing to win any of their five remaining games and missing out on the knock out stages for a second straight year.

City's dismal performance in Europe's top competition had to change and Manuel Pellegrini, who guided Villarreal and Malaga to surprising success in the Champions League, was earmarked as the man to do it.

UEFA's ranking system in this tournament is strongly tipped in favour of teams who perform well in it. City, much like an out-of-town, rich gambler showing up to a casino where no one knew him, have to prove themselves to UEFA to help them become one of the elite clubs. They may be flush with cash but in the Champions League draw they are given no favours. Once again, they were ranked in pot three this season and faced a realistic possibility of being handed a third difficult group in as many years.

Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen was certainly not an easy draw but, definitely, represented their best chance yet of reaching the knocking stages.

A win in the Czech Republic against Plzen had City starting their campaign off in fine form but when they were outplayed by Bayern Munich at home, some questioned whether they were good enough at this level once again. The criticism was harsh, after all the German champions are the reigning European champions, but City knew if they were going to progress past the group stages they would have to do well in games three and four in the group.

In the Champions League, teams play each other, home and away, on matchdays three and four and, by coincidence, it has been these games that City have struggled in during the past two years.

Last year, in a group with Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax, City had a chance to push for a knock out spot against the then Dutch champions who were struggling in the league at the time. Instead, City lost 3-1 in Amsterdam and drew 2-2 at home to end all chances of qualifying.

In year one, they played Spanish side Villarreal and, although won both matches, were very fortunate in the first game when Sergio Aguero scored in the 93rd minute to give them a 2-1 win. Villarreal were a poor side and would get relegated from La Liga later that year.

After two matchdays, this season it was clear that Bayern, having beaten CSKA and City, were the class of the group with the other two, each beating Plzen, having to battle for the final spot out of the group.

That meant City's game in Russia was arguably their biggest game of the season. With the quality at their disposal, City absolutely should be playing Champions League knockout matches this season. It is what Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarek demands, what Director of football Txiki Begiristain expects and what manager Pellegrini and his players need.

When CSKA, against the run of play, took the lead on 32 minutes through former Manchester United man Zoran Tosic, it was a time for City's top players to stand up and be counted.

"At the moment, they are in serious trouble in this group," stated veteran commentator Martin Tyler. He was, of course, correct and the words definitely were all too familiar for City.

Seconds later David Silva, the true space invader, found room between the lines to receive a pass from Kolarov before sprinting towards the box and attracting three defenders towards him. The Spaniard had one quick glance to his left, sent a ball into the six yard box for Aguero to run towards and he got the better of his defender to poke home the equalizer.

Eight minutes later, the Argentine superstar headed City into a 2-1 lead, to cap off a fantastic week for him and an excellent first half for his side. City had to fight hard for their lead, had even given CSKA an opening goal, but, in truth, could have been out of sight, having squandered three excellent scoring chances in the first 45 minutes.

The second half was a more measured, professional display from the visitors who showed calmness and maturity while leading and it appeared they were on their way to a comfortable win, despite what the scoreline suggested.

Then the ball sat up perfectly and Honda's left foot connected perfectly. The ball blasted towards the goal, but instead of the net bulging and the home crowd erupting, another key left leg came into play as Hart, positioned brilliantly, performed a magnificent, instinctive save to rescue the game and secure three points.

Three points. Endless ramifications. City had done it. Finally they won a key, difficult away match in the Champions League. They, now with six points after three group games for the first time in their history, are heading home for matches against CSKA and Plzen, which means they very much should secure qualification before their final match (away at Bayern.)

Two home European nights that now give them a real opportunity to show Europe who they are. City are too talented to play a nervous, tentative style that has so often haunted them in the Champions League so far. In Moscow on Wednesday, they weren't perfect - Vincent Kompany is almost irreplaceable when injured- but they were very good. Gone was the narrow, negative, passive style under Mancini when they were forever chasing a top two spot. They have got their swagger back, led by legitimate world class stars in Aguero, Toure and Silva, and now they are on the right path towards Champions League knockout qualification.

As a likely group runner-up they will be the team no one will want. By then City will be where they finally belong, all thanks to Hart's left leg.

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