Perhaps unbeknownst to all involved at the time, this may have been the beginning of the end of City's European campaign.
Manchester City's players are right to treat Wednesday's Champions League tilt against Real Madrid as one of the most important matches of the season. Taking the pitch with anything less than full commitment from a player's perspective is a recipe for disaster. Ask Aston Villa for details. (Via the Telegraph.)
Roberto Mancini, however, needs to keep his eyes skyward but his feet planted firmly on the ground.
Star striker Sergio Aguero has the right attitude even despite the absurdly long odds against City qualifying for the knockout stage after City took only two of a possible twelve points from their first four Champions League Group D fixtures—two of them against perceived underdog Ajax.
“We should never give up,” Aguero recently told David Clayton per the club's site. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right? Of course, it’s harder now because we’re not just relying on ourselves but also on the other teams’ results." (Via mcfc.co.uk.)
If you hold a ticket to this fixture, those words may be somewhat heartening. It certainly beats hearing Aguero say the equivalent of "look, we know we have already blown any chance of getting out of pool play here, but we are contractually obligated to play this match, so we will do what we can and try not to get embarrassed." Playing at anything less than full speed at the outset against Madrid would surely invite a shaming rout at the Etihad.
So City's players are professionals, and they are not going to abandon the cause until the cause is irretrievably lost. That is good. Mancini, though, should be ready to pull the rip cord before his players do.
Like Aguero, Mancini is saying all the right things in advance of Wednesday's win-or-else contest. As Mancini put it, according to the Daily Mail, "(t)hey are one of the best teams in the world, and to beat them, we will have to give a perfect performance." Mancini reminded those listening that the Sky Blues were up by a goal at the Bernabeu with four minutes left only to lose in heartbreaking fashion.
Unfortunately for Mancini and his side, only two victories and good fortune with the results of the other remaining Group D matches will salvage this apparently stillborn Champions League campaign. To get that far, of course, City must win Wednesday. (Via soccernet.espn.go.com.)
Which is why, ultimately, Mancini must be prepared to abandon this soon-to-be-lost cause earlier than later if City falls behind by, say, two tallies early, or one tally late. A draw would be useless, and there is no benefit to the club to be derived from "protecting the field."
If despite City's best efforts Wednesday the match gets away, Mancini will be best served for the long run to take his most valuable players, whoever he deems them to be, off in substitution. If the allotted substitutions have been exhausted, Mancini should adjust his formation to protect his stars and (to the extent that he can) keep them out of harm's way.
Hardcore fans never want to hear that their team will do anything other than fight to the end of every match, clinging to the slimmest hopes. Even when those hopes are extinguished, there is often talk of "playing for pride" and trying to keep losses close at all costs rather than being humiliated in a lopsided defeat.
Borrowing from American football for a moment, irrational managerial behavior like that is how Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots breaks his forearm when his team is ahead by 34 points with less than four minutes left in the game. (Via the Boston Herald.) Or how LeSean McCoy gets concussed when his team is behind by 25 points with less than two minutes left to play. (Via cbssports.com.)
Obviously, there is no fail-safe way to protect players from injury. But there are subtle and not-so-subtle means at Mancini's disposal to protect Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Yaya Toure and the like from missing arguably more important upcoming league ties with Chelsea, Everton and Manchester United due to unnecessary injury sustained chasing a ghost in the Champions League.
Sometimes, if it cannot be avoided, you have to know how to lose.