Going into today we feared the worst as a depleted Villarreal squad went to Manchester to face the EPL leaders in another Champions League "Group of Death" matchup. Astonishingly, Villarreal went in front in the fourth minute. Hernán Pérez and Jonathan DeGuzman both did good work to find Rossi in the area, he made a trademark swerve to beat two defenders, and though Joe Hart saved his shot, Cani was there to fire in the rebound. 1-0 to the Submarine!
Although we were in a 4-2-3-1, we had much better width, and Pérez in particular was able to use his speed and skill to find some room to play a final ball toward Rossi, but the quality of the final pass wasn't there. City's midfielders were able to keep Borja, Cani and DeGuzman from linking up with Rossi, and in general our counterattacks were just too slow to develop around the box.
There were a couple of disturbing trends developing as well. One was the Czech referee's refusal to penalize City for overly physical play--we were getting pushed off the ball far too easily, true, but some of those challenges were outside the Laws of the Game--and another was our inability to maintain possession and take some pressure off our defenders.
Zapata in particular was guilty of playing poor passes in our half to turn over possession, but at least they were mostly toward the touchline. Still, with Villarreal unable to spring Rossi free and Man City gradually turning the screws, one could see an equalizer coming. When it did, in the 43rd minute, it was not from the expected source, though. A cross toward dangerman Dzeko was cleared past Diego Lopez and into his net by Marchena. Unlucky, though to be fair 1-1 at the half didn't seem unjust at the time.
HT Man City 1-1 Villarreal
At the halftime most of us were saying we needed to control the ball more, and evidently Garrido agreed. In the first fifteen minutes of the half we showed more attacking flair, with Rossi (3), Borja (2) and Cani all trying their luck, though only Rossi tested Hart with a low shot across his body that the keeper parried, and this time there was no one to prod home the rebound.
Meanwhile, Dzeko missed a good chance from a Touré cross, and then put the ball in the net but it was correctly ruled offside. In the 60th minute Kun Aguero came on, but didn't make an immediate impact. We were still doing well enough; Marchena and Gonzalo had both made critical tackles to deny Dzeko, while we were able to create some danger outside the Man City box but our buildup was just too slow and horizontal, with no movement into the box. Sound familiar?
In the 68th minute the Czech ref gave Rossi a yellow for diving over Kolarov's leg. Questionable, to be sure, but his failure to punish Hart for coming over and shoving Rossi (in full view of the referee) was ridiculous.
Shortly after this my stream died and I missed about 8 minutes of action, but I gather not much changed. Once I was able to watch again Aguero played a lovely diagonal through ball to Dzeko--he shot over the top, fortunately.
Ten minutes to go. Man City bring on Milner (Barry and Aguero having already come on). Garrido brings on Wakaso and Mario Gaspar for Hernán Pérez and Cani. In spite of all the talk about "we're playing to win", it was clear we were willing to set up shop and get back home with a draw. Which would have been fine.
But: before those substitutions, Man City was unable to commit everyone to attack, because Perez, Cani, Borja, deGuzman were all controlling the ball enough in midfield to force City to defend. After them (and the last one was bringing on Marcos Gullon for DeGuzman) it was clear Rossi would have nothing to do. We were trying to hold out, full stop.
We did win a corner in the 83rd minute, but Borja was pelted by paper from the Man City supporters as he lined up to take it. The referee, of course, did nothing except insist he hurry. He played a poor one, no doubt put off by all the pelting, and the threat was over.
Three minutes of injury time. In the first of them, Kolarov crossed into the box. The ball found Zubaleta, who was offside, but the flag stayed down. But López saved his header.
Worse was to come. Rossi tried to win a corner down by the flag but was disposessed by Kompany, who started what had to be the last Man City attack with only 45 seconds of time remaining. One of our players (I couldn't tell which) was nearly able to clear the ball away as the buildup started, but his kick only went as far as a City player. Milner played a ball to someone (Zubaleta, I think) who fired the ball across goal and Aguero, unmarked at the near post, slotted it home. Watching the replay it seemed clear to me that there were players involved in the play in an offside position, but the linesman kept his flag down.
The full-time whistle went. Villarreal was livid, Marchena, Catalá, and López especially. Aguero was classless, taunting the Villarreal players as losers and lightweights, I'm told, as they left the pitch. I don't usually wish ill on anyone, but maybe I should make an exception for him.
FT Man City 2-1 Villarreal
An unjust result. A result that feels like robbery, frankly. We deserved a point and had the game been refereed more competently, I'm convinced we would have had one. The Czech officials allowed the home crowd to influence what they saw and how they reacted to it, and that is inexcusable at this level. (I've now watched a replay of the goal buildup several times--I still think it was offside)
Having said that, I will again question Garrido's decision-making at the end. By removing the players he did, we were left with absolutely no attacking threat or ability to possess the ball in midfield. Yes, you have to defend well when the pressure is on. But ball possession can alleviate pressure. And when you end up with so many defenders on the pitch (we had Zapata, Gonzalo and Marchena, 3 central defenders; Catala and Mario, 2 fullbacks; Bruno, Marcos Gullon, Wakaso, and Borja, 4 midfielders, and Rossi) I just question whether you aren't setting yourself up for the sort of error--failing to cover the back post--that happened here.
But that's with the benefit of hindsight. I have to say up until the final attack, that group had done just fine and the game seemed destined for a draw.
Sid, Ravi and I said on the podcast we thought the most important thing was for us to play a game we could feel proud of, regardless of result. We did that. Now let's take the good things from this game and move forward.