Joe Hart launches into a knee-jerk, post-match criticism of his team, which prompts a knee-jerk retort from the boss. Shut it! The frustration of Hart and Roberto Mancini sprung from the same source and pointed inward, reflecting the sense of what might have been. Manchester City led Real Madrid with three minutes to go, were drawing with 90 minutes on the clock, yet left the Bernabeu with nothing.
That beautiful, preening monster Cristiano Ronaldo ran through them like a matador does a bull, applying the final cut with a clinical thrust of his right boot. Hart fumbled Ronaldo’s late-dipping shot and City were done, the lights went out on a pulsating night.
As Mancini trawls through the replays he might reflect on the folly of a conservative set-up that left Carlos Tevez a lone and peripheral presence up front. This negative reflex handed the initiative to a Real Madrid side badly in need of a confidence boost. Defeats to Getafe and Sevilla led to a bout of introspection not seen since the arrival of Jose Mourinho.
Ronaldo broadcast his sadness at a perceived slight in the board room and Mourinho bemoaned the lack of motivation in his squad. This was a time to attack not defend yet Mancini could not escape his innate caution. City have shed any sense of inferiority at home but have yet to develop a swagger in the Champions League.
Barcelona defer to none. Home or away they play the same way. The ball does not change shape away from the Nou Camp, their opponents do not gain a yard of pace for being at home. Thus do Barca impose themselves on the game whatever the surroundings.
City’s surrender of territory meant that Madrid were never under pressure in the first half, which, were it not for the athleticism and bravery of Hart, might have been terminal before Mancini shed the cloak of austerity on the hour. With his tail up Ronaldo was unplayable. The boy is a freak, combining gymnastic physicality with power and pace.
Whatever the issue behind his ‘sadness’ those in control would be mad not to address it. He does not have Leo Messi’s nuanced touch or his rapid directional changes, but he explodes across the surface like no other and he knows where the goal is. Hart might have done better, but the point is Ronaldo was in the thick of it and delivered when it mattered most.
City cannot complain. They were dominated for all but the final period. The introduction of Edin Dzeko gave vital support to Tevez up front and the marvellous Yaya Toure license to break forward at pace. The result was a superb opening goal against the run of play.
The development was as much a surprise to City as it was to Madrid, which ultimately betrays not a lack of ability at this level but belief. Madrid bled belief and went hell for leather for City’s throats all night. City, stifled by inhibition, tried to contain.
Toure’s towering presence gave them a foothold in the contest but too few followed his lead. It is pointless Mancini directing his ire at Hart. The goalkeeper was not the problem. The manager sets the tone with his selection. The downward spiral started there.
If City are to break the negative spell in Europe, Mancini must infuse his team with a positive mentality. They won the Premier League on merit. They are good enough, but not with one man up front and a one-paced wall across the middle. The Champions league is hard enough without beating yourself.