Manchester City began their ill-fated Champions League campaign with one of the toughest games in the club’s entire history.
City had once again been drawn in the so-called "Group of Death," but the team were determined to learn from the mistakes of last year, and qualification to the knockout stage was a minimum requirement.
The team arrived at the Bernabeu with Roberto Mancini trying to take the pressure off his players by insisting they were not contenders for the trophy and that no team could win it in just their second year in the competition.
Real Madrid had begun the season in complete disarray. They had only taken four points from as many games and were already eight points behind Barcelona in the league. They had just lost 1-0 to Sevilla, and Jose Mourinho was attracting stinging criticism from the Madrid press for openly questioning the focus and commitment of his players.
Real were the better team on the night, but Joe Hart was having a magnificent game and kept them in the match with a string of fine saves. Yaya Toure was also having a great game, and City opened the scoring when he made a penetrative run from deep to present Edin Dzeko with an easy chance.
Real equalised in the 76th minute, but when Aleksandar Kolarov scored directly from a free-kick to make it 2-1 in the 84th minute, it looked like they had secured an improbable away win against one of the competition’s favourites.
This is when everything went wrong, and within six minutes City’s season had changed completely. First Karim Benzema turned inside Matija Nastasic to score from the edge of the box, and then Cristiano Ronaldo bagged a winner from a tame shot that should have been blocked by Vincent Kompany or saved by Hart.
Hart was partially at fault for the last two goals but had a great game up until the last few minutes, and it should have been accepted that every goalkeeper makes mistakes. His reputation was in the ascendancy, and Europe was beginning to take notice of this talented young English goalkeeper everyone was talking about. The former Manchester United captain Roy Keane had not yet questioned his talent.
The fallout from the game was enormous, and the shock waves could be felt for the remainder of the season. In the post-match interviews Hart told reporters that the team needed to take responsibility for letting a lead slip away in the final few minutes, but according to The Telegraph, Mancini interpreted this interview in the wrong way:
“Joe Hart should stay in goal and make saves. If anyone should criticise the team it should be me, not Joe Hart. I am the judge, not Joe Hart.”
The seeds of Mancini’s downfall were planted in this game and in the way he behaved afterwards. He needed to take City to the knockout stage of the competition but let three precious points slip away. The self-belief the team would have got from beating the mighty Real in their own backyard is immeasurable, but losing in the manner they did only added to their European angst, and their confidence diminished as the games went by.
Mancini’s post-match attack on his players became a running theme throughout the year. He didn’t just single out Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany’s performance was also criticised. The Italian publicly questioned why the defender ducked under Ronaldo’s shot and why the defence sat back so deep in the last 10 minutes.
His behaviour was not too dissimilar to Mourinho’s after the Sevilla game. Real players responded to his public attack with a great performance against City, but ultimately he poisoned his relationship with the players by continually and openly shaming them.
Mancini went even further than the "Special One," and his increasingly fractured relationship with his players culminated in training-ground fight with the enigmatic Mario Balotelli, as reported by the Daily Mail.
The manager undermined his players, and City’s entire squad seemed to lose their form, consistency and confidence—none more spectacularly than the England No.1, Joe Hart.
It's telling that when Mancini lost his job not a single player came out to question the decision or back the manager the way they did when Mark Hughes got the sack.
What if City had held out in the Bernabeu? Would they have qualified from their group? Would Mancini still be in a job? Would the squad have made a stronger defence of their title?