Manchester City vs. Ajax: 6 Things We Learned from Sky Blues' Death Rattle
Most troubling is that the four points Ajax have all came at City's expense. Ajax lost the other two games they played against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund (i.e., the two teams City must beat to have even the slightest chance to advance to the knockout stage). Not likely, since Borussia Dortmund (eight points) and Real Madrid (seven points) both have huge leads over City and both have a game against Ajax still to play.
So even though the doctor has yet to turn off the ventilator, it is probably wise to accept that City's Champions League hopes for this go-round are dead. What follows are the takeaways from the bitter end.
Not Cowardly Lions, but Very Possibly Tin Men
Much has been written already about how Manchester City have faltered and fumbled in their Champions League efforts this season and last. It probably does not help matters when Roberto Mancini comes out and says that the defending Premier League champions are not ready to win the Champions League.
But let's say for argument's sake that that statement from the manager was a call to action intended to rouse his squad for the daunting task of reeling off three straight wins to post 10 points and hope for help along the way. How did his side respond?
They were down 2-0 at home against the other weak sister of Group D after 17 minutes. That's how.
That is not exactly the heart of a champion. Yes, yes, the comeback was entertaining and furious, and yes, maybe Sergio Agüero's winner just before the death was onside.
The thing is, though, that great teams never put themselves down two against an arguably inferior opponent in a must-win match at home. Apologies to Ajax, though—it is hard now to argue that they are at all inferior to City.
City's Defense of Set Pieces Is Still Atrocious
Of course, it is a bit more understandable to see how City ended up two down in the first 17 minutes if you are told that they ceded two corner kicks in the span of seven minutes, both of which led to Siem de Jong goals.
Injuries to key defenders Micah Richards, Joleon Lescott and Maicon (who dressed but did not play) left Mancini no choice but to continue to press his luck with Matija Nastasic on the back line.
It is one thing to mark an only marginally interested Andy Carroll at Upton Park, as Nastasic did over the weekend. Champions League play is another matter entirely. And there was Nastasic, giving up the first corner. Moments later the ball was in the net, and the hosts were stuck trying to catch another opponent from behind.
Defensive personnel issues aside, Champions League sides generally should not be as troubled by set pieces as City seem to be. When they employ zonal marking, it does not work. When they play man-to-man, an opponent invariably gets free.
This is no way to defend at the highest level.
Trouble with Finishing
When your side has defensive shortcomings and you know it, your choices are fairly clear: park the bus or win the game by outscoring the other side.
A team with City's payroll and its embarrassment of riches at striker would be insane to try to win every game 1-0, particularly with the defense it presently puts on the pitch. So City is going to have to overcome the deficits its defenders create by burning out light bulbs on its side of the scoreboard.
This season, however—and especially in Champions League play—the chances City has created have often gone wanting.
Against Ajax, Agüero got the equalizer and he appeared to get a likely winner. But he also looked to be on roller skates in multiple spots where he threatened to get City desperately needed markers. And Mario Balotelli, brought on for the second half, gave a strong shift generally but also saw a makeable header turned away.
City is in the unfortunate position of needing three goals in every match they play to have a reasonable chance to win in the Champions League these days.
Champions League Play Becoming a Curse, Not a Blessing
Champions League play brings with it some guaranteed financial benefits and the chance for much, much more.
But as any gambler will tell you, you cannot win what you are not willing to lose. How does this apply to City's Champions League efforts the past two years? In chasing the ultimate prize, City has been exposed as a really nice English team that just is not ready to compete with the big boys in Europe.
City's Premier League form this season, for all the points they have earned and stolen, has them near the top of the table despite themselves. As it usually happens, though, the sins and shames you can hide from Fulham, Southampton and Queens Park Rangers all see the light of day when the opposition is quality.
If their form in the Premiership holds, they will finish third and qualify for the Champions League again in 2013. (You don't think Everton, West Bromwich Albion or Tottenham Hotspur are going to catch them, right? Me neither.)
They may begin to wish it were not so.
The Night of the Long Knives May Be Nigh
City's last-minute title-clincher was only last May, but it feels like a decade ago at this point.
Mancini's side has crash-landed to the bottom of Group D with two more games left against Borussia Dortmund, who thoroughly dominated City only to end up drawn by a controversial spot kick, and Real Madrid, who scored twice in five minutes to beat City and start City's Champions League slide.
Now, look, it is pretty hard to sack a manager who has his team out to an unbeaten start through 10 league games played in the Premiership—the last of the unbeatens, in fact.
But then again, City has not really played any of the elite sides in the league yet. In the next month and change, matches against Spurs, Chelsea, Everton and United loom. If City sputter in those fixtures, well, anything is possible.
The Remaining Champions League Fixtures Are Better Played Like Domestic Cup Ties
It will never happen, of course, but if Roberto Mancini and Manchester City's ownership have any sense, they should empty the bench for the remaining Champions League fixtures this season.
You will hear a lot of sanctimonious noise from people who expect City to "protect the field" by playing those remaining matches to win even though the overwhelming probability is that even consecutive wins over Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund will not be enough to get City through to the knockout stage.
Let them bleat away. Tanking the last two Champions League matches is the only sensible move.
Like it or not, City's eggs are for the second consecutive season in the Premiership basket. Even winning the FA Cup that was such a thrill two seasons ago would mean little if City do not defend the Premier League title.
As such, these remaining Champions League matches are basically meaningless. And there is no point in risking injury to any of City's top-level talent (Joe Hart, Carlos Tevez, Yaya Touré and Agüero come to mind) in matches that will not ultimately bear fruit.
For that matter, after watching the "starters" come out 0-2-2 through four games, can you say that the reserves would be that much worse?