As Matt Damon's character, Mike McDermott, once memorably stated in the movie Rounders: "Listen, here's the thing. If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker."
The prevailing narrative when City's Champions League draw was announced was some variation of "here we go again." Last year, City were thrown in with Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villareal. Though Villareal played below its normal standard, Napoli and Bayern Munich surely did not. Despite collecting 10 points, City did not advance to the knockout stage last season. It cannot be said whether they watched Bayern Munich lose to Chelsea in the final, but you must figure they noticed.
City's reward for winning the Premier League crown for the first time in 44 years was to be drawn into the Champions League's 2012 Group of Death. Champions of Spain, champions of Germany, champions of Holland. Thanks for nothing.
Still, City was poised to assert itself as a world power, particularly insofar as the team City took to Champions League play this season was largely intact from its title run in the Premiership.
Now, three games into group play, Manchester City has one solitary point. And if you are being truthful, you would have to say that they were absurdly fortunate to even get that one.
Through three Champions League matches this season, Manchester City plainly seems like it does not belong in this tournament.
Harsh words, but check the evidence. Perhaps no one expected City to go to Real Madrid and win in the Champions League opener. But after Aleksandar Kolarov scored in the 85th minute (decidedly against the run of play, and so what?), certainly a side with legitimate Champions League aspirations could buckle things up long enough to win, right? Even after Karim Benzema's equalizer two minutes later, a draw at the Bernabeu was still an OK result. Or is that too much to ask?
When you give Cristiano Ronaldo the ball in space on the wing in injury time, yes, a draw is too much to ask.
So they had to get it right against Borussia Dortmund at the Etihad. That is what a bona fide Champions League team does. Instead, City was nearly run out of their own building by the German titleholders. Only a very shady penalty for handball in the area (repeat: very shady) allowed Mario Balotelli to convert an equalizing opportunity from the spot in injury time. When it happened, it seemed like City's lifeline back into the tournament.
Regrettably, after City's atrocious, lamentable and confused effort at Ajax, that lifeline looks more like a strand of razor blades.
Against Real Madrid, City was outclassed and thoroughly beaten in a game where the score did not do Real Madrid's dominance justice. In truth, City was fortunate not to concede four, five or even six goals in that match; they were as lucky to score twice given the dearth of chances they created.
Against Borussia Dortmund, as a home side desperate to climb back into the knockout stage discussion, City figured to bring its best, most clinical football to bear. Hardly. For the second consecutive time in Champions League play, City looked flat and a half-step slow for the vast majority of 90 minutes. Inexcusable.
Now this. Ajax was seen by many to be the soft spot in Group D. As they did against Real Madrid, City scored first. And again, as they did against Real Madrid, City flat-out gave the game away in the remaining time.
City ceded three goals (three!) in different yet familiar ways. Siem De Jong's strike just before the half was made possible by City's back line playing too passively and allowing a long cross to find a wide open shooter, who then had sufficient time to pick a corner. Niklas Moisander's header off a corner kick saw City's zonal marking on a set piece prove totally useless yet again. And while Christian Eriksen's strike was likely to be saved but for Gael Clichy's ill-fated attempt to clear, well, Eriksen had all day to shoot. Besides, these are the bad-bounce goals that often follow bad defending.
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.
Later in Rounders, our hero sagely intones about the suckers at the table: "I used to wonder how they could let themselves get into such bad shape, and how the hell they thought they could turn it around."
Mancini and his men have been exposed as the suckers in Group D. You have to wonder if they have learned anything along the way.
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