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No Big Four, No Problem for City

Published: 11th December 2014 11:37 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th December 2014 11:37 AM   |  A+A-

All Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan wanted from Manuel Pellegrini in the Champions League this season was progress, but on a dramatic night in Rome, Manchester City gave their owner even more than all the oil in Abu Dhabi can buy. Drama, edge-of-the-seat tension and, perhaps more joyously than anything else, belief.

For the second successive season, City have negotiated the Champions League group stages to mix it with Europe's elite in the knockout stages, and despite their early faltering steps in Group E, the skin of their teeth remains intact with a three-point margin over the also-rans of Roma and CSKA Moscow.

Having fought back from the dead to defeat Bayern Munich 3-2 at the Etihad Stadium last month, City secured the most significant European away victory in their history thanks to Samir Nasri's crowd-silencing strike and Pablo Zabaleta's late goal in the Stadio Olimpico.

And City pulled it off with their big four - Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero - all missing from the starting line-up against last season's Serie A runners-up.

If City can beat Bayern and win in Rome, perhaps they can justify Pellegrini's recent claim that they could go all the way to the final in Berlin next June.

Belief, wishful thinking or false hope, it does not really matter because City have drunk in the last-chance saloon and walked through the door, while the likes of Liverpool and Roma have been left slumped under the tables, dreaming of what might have been.

In recent seasons, City have exorcised enough ghosts to enter any situation without fear or trepidation, so the challenge of securing the club's first competitive victory on Italian soil would not have fazed them. The core of Pellegrini's squad has helped City end their 35-year trophy drought, drawn a line under an even lengthier wait to be crowned English champions and, just as significant and satisfying for their supporters, swung the balance of power in Manchester firmly to the blue half of the city.

But City faced their Italian job seemingly with one arm tied behind their back as a result of the enforced changes. Toure, serving the second game of his three-match Champions League suspension, was always going to miss this do-or-die fixture, but Pellegrini could never have imagined facing Roma without

Silva, Aguero and captain Kompany as well.

Injuries to that crucial trio had served to rip the heart of out the team. His four best players were not available for duty in a game which may define his reign as manager.

The last time an English team were without so many important players on Champions League duty, Manchester United, hamstrung by Uefa's four-foreigner rule in the mid-1990s, suffered a humbling 4-0 hammering at the hands of Barcelona with Peter Schmeichel, Andrei Kanchelskis and the suspended Eric Cantona watching, helpless, from the Nou Camp directors' box.

City displayed greater resolve here last night than their Mancunian rivals had done in Catalonia, however. Silva, at least, was able to take his place on the bench, but Kompany was forced to kick every ball from the stands after failing to overcome a hamstring injury prior to the game.

The harsh reality for City is that few outside the Etihad would have shed any tears for their predicament in Rome. The price of success is resentment from outsiders waiting for misfortune to strike, and the absence of City's four best players would have brought joy to those sticking pins in sky-blue voodoo dolls, regardless of the damage it would have done to the standing of the Premier League if half of its four Champions League representatives were to have been absent from next week's knockout draw in Nyon.

Still, the penalties imposed by Uefa in the summer for failing to comply with Financial Fair Play regulations had an effect against Roma.

A transfer spending cap and reduced Champions League squad arguably denied City the extra quality which would have eased nerves and boosted confidence against Rudi Garcia's team.

Yet with a smaller pot of spending money at Pellegrini's disposal, perhaps the pounds 32?million lavished on defender Eliaquim Mangala may have been better spent on two less expensive additions.

And the late decision to loan Alvaro Negredo to Valencia in August left Pellegrini without the additional strike power which would have eased the expectation on Edin Dzeko to deliver the crucial goals against Roma.

Hindsight can never be a component of strategic planning when assessing the needs of a squad, but the overspend on Mangala and departure of Negredo have so far done little to improve Pellegrini's options.

But with goalkeeper Joe Hart standing up to Roma's bold attacking with a series of crucial saves and Nasri and Martin Demichelis producing outstanding performances, the mistakes of this season, on and the off the pitch, did not return to haunt City in the biggest game of their campaign.

By guiding City into the last 16, Pellegrini has matched last season's achievement and progress will be a place in the quarter-finals.

Tuesday's draw could be crucial, with the difference between landing Monaco or Real Madrid likely to be decisive. But City are in it to win it, so why not believe?



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