MADRID – Manchester City saw their hopes in the Champions League all but extinguished Tuesday night after a 2-2 draw against Dutch champions Ajax left their fate out of their hands. The game was marred by two contentious refereeing decisions that had City fuming at the whistle, but that will not change an essential fact: Roberto Mancini and his men simply have not deserved their place in Europe this season.
It was always going to be a tough road for the new English champions, who were drawn into one of the toughest "groups of death" in recent memory. Comprised entirely of past European Cup winners -- save, of course, Manchester City -- even the most faded side of the bunch couldn't be taken lightly.
That team is Ajax, currently fifth in what most agree is a second-tier, selling league. So what? They have now collected four points off the English champions and reminded everyone that Dutch soccer's not as dead as you might believe. Ajax fielded eight players from their illustrious academy - City fielded none - and dominated this home-and-away series.
Ajax racked up five goals in two games on a team that has only conceded nine goals in their first ten games of league play. In fact, City have conceded as many goals in their four European games as they have in all their Premier League encounters. They did it with a squad that combined costs less than an average City's player's yearly wage. They did in the face of some big-name, big-pedigree talent. And in doing so, they have exposed City for what it is: hollow.
City, like Chelsea , like Paris Saint-Germain and yes, like Real Madrid , have tried to buy their way into titles. They have succeeded in taking three pieces of silverware in a short amount of time - one of those, the Community Shield, really doesn't count for much. Though feat deserves credit, City have not been able to gain any sort of steel for the competition that truly measures a club's success - and this deserves derision.
A lot must and will be heaped on Roberto Mancini's shoulders. He has demonstrated an alarming fecklessness during his tenure as City's manager and seems more concerned with career-climbing than with developing an actual team. His body language Tuesday night was suggestive. When Siem de Jong rattled his first goal home, Mancini's face was dismissive of his own team, a deflective gesture that was utterly self-serving.
This is a manager who seems unable to stop self-aggrandizing, inexplicably telling reporters last week that "seven or eight" clubs were inquiring about his services after the Guardian revealed he had held high level talks with a second-division French team. He seems unable to manage the powerful egos in his squad, enduring a series of frustrations and humiliations nearly every time he makes a substitution. Most damning, however, is that he keeps employing systems that do not suit the players he has on the payroll, with the result that teams with continental experience are able to outwit and then outlast his side time and time again.
Both goals scored by Ajax were painful: schoolboy errors converted smartly that revealed a lack of preparation and concentration. City's defenders seemed unable to focus on the pace or intensity of the game, with Gareth Barry particularly victimized. As they did in Amsterdam, City seemed to take a positive result for granted. As they do so often in England, City seemed to think that they could get out of any hole they had dug. But Europe is not England, Ajax are not Stoke or Norwich , and with all due respect to fans of the Premier League, there is far more at stake in the European Cup.
That attitude comes from the top, and it is telling that Mancini has always been a flop on the European stage. As a player, the best he could muster was a Cup Winner's Cup and a bronze medal at a World Cup his nation hosted. As a manager, he's conquered two leagues but has always fallen badly when he has to play teams outside the borders.
His answers at Lazio , at I nter and now at City are eerily familiar: go buy more players. That's a manger's way of saying it's not his fault, but the truth is, a fine craftsman doesn't blame his tools. Mancini's no craftsman. Just look at Manchester City, stocked with talent, aching for leadership, and wonder what a coach with true European caliber could accomplish.