City’s hopes of progressing to the latter stages of the Champions League were left hanging by a thread following a 3-1 defeat to Ajax in Amsterdam.
There had seemed little chance of defeat after Samir Nasri gave the Blues a deserved 22nd minute lead, but after the hosts levelled on the stroke of half-time, City conceded two sloppy goals in the space of ten second-half minutes that now leave Roberto Mancini’s side bottom of the group.
With Borussia Dortmund beating Real Madrid 2-1 in the other group game, qualification will be extremely difficult after yet another defeat away from home in Europe – the Blues fourth in five Champions League games.
Mancini, who said before kick-off that this was a must-win game, elected to stick with the majority of players who had served him so well in the 2-1 win at West Brom.
Ajax may have gone into this game propping up the group with no goals and no points, but the first 15 minutes of this encounter at the noisy Amsterdam Arena suggested City may be in for a difficult 90 minutes. And that’s exactly what eventually transpired.
Christian Eriksen was proving a real threat for the Dutch side early on, fizzing two shots just inches wide from 20 yards as the Blues withstood some early pressure, but gradually, City started to take control, pressing Ajax back and after 22 minutes, took the lead.
The move started with a precision 30-yard pass from Micah Richards who found the impressive James Milner in midfield. The England international moved forward with purpose, held his final pass just long enough to feed the overlapping Nasri who finished powerfully with a curling drive from ten yards.
Six minutes later and a neat one-two between Milner and Richards saw the City right-back in acres of space as he powered towards the box – for a split second both he and Yaya Toure almost left the ball for each other before Richards continued and saw his shot well saved by Vermeer.
The Blues were well on top and looking extremely comfortable, but the failure to add a second during a 15-minute spell of dominance was punished right on half-time when Van Rhijn’s low cross evaded everyone except Siem De Jong who fired a low drive past Joe Hart for the equaliser.
It was harsh on City, but yet further proof that the Champions League can be a cruel competition if players switch off even for just a few seconds. Yet it would happen twice more in this game.
The Blues came out with intent for the opening minutes of the second-half, but yet again, a lapse in concentration and City conceded a second goal as slack marking at a corner allowed Moisander to rise unchallenged and glance past Hart from Eriksen’s cross just before the hour.
Worse was to follow ten minutes later as Ajax began unpicking the Blues’ defence at will and when Gareth Barry lost the ball mid-way in his own half, Eriksen, a thorn all evening, was allowed to run unchallenged before hitting a shot that first deflected off Richards and then Gael Clichy to leave Hart wrong-footed and City 3-1 down.
It could have been worse, too, but for a fine save from Hart from Sana just three minutes later as City’s shoddy all-round play continued.
Edin Dzeko had two good chances shortly after but was denied by Vermeer on each occasion and Nasri had a decent shout for a penalty, but the damage had already been done.
The Blues won’t give up, but it is starting to look a little like mission impossible as far as progression is concerned.