A City defence with a heart of glass was repeatedly grateful for the class of Joe Hart as Borussia Dortmund were frustrated
Roberto Mancini said Manchester City had to stop conceding easy goals, Yaya Touré agreed the defensive mistakes had to be cut out. Joe Hart wisely kept his opinions to himself on this occasion, though it was simple for anyone to work out that a team yet to keep a clean sheet this season and conceding at a rate of almost two goals per game would struggle to reach the heights of the last domestic campaign, let alone do justice to themselves in Europe. Hart did his best to achieve a clean sheet, and even the Germans would agree that Hart at his best is truly magnificent, yet in the end City were undone by familiar failings.
Once again facing one of the most attacking sides in the Champions League in a group even more difficult than the one they entered as rookies last season, the champions of England really needed to hold out until half-time against the champions of Germany to give themselves any hope of a result that would help atone for the points thrown away so late in last month's defeat at Real Madrid. They accomplished that target reasonably impressively, for even though they were indebted to Hart for a string of wonderful saves there were chances at the other end that could and perhaps should have been taken.
But when the deadlock was finally broken after just over an hour City once again had only themselves to blame. They made a defensive mistake and conceded an easy goal. Jack Rodwell was only on as a substitute following an injury to Javi García, but under no particular pressure in the middle of his own half he played a pass blind and paid the price. Marco Reus was on to it in a flash, and though Hart had performed miracles all evening even he could not keep this shot out.
This was far from the Champions League statement of intent City had been hoping to make, though they can only reflect that but for their inspired goalkeeper the damage could have been much, much worse – and certainly not retrievable through Mario Balotelli's late penalty. Just reaching the interval on level terms was no mean feat, since few visiting teams will turn up in Manchester with such a bold attacking strategy. Dortmund's plan was clearly to punch holes in the City defence right from the outset with a high-speed yet precise passing game that at its best would bewilder even the most organised of defences, though the longer the home side held firm the more likely it appeared that the Germans would tire and be forced to drop their intensity.
Sure enough, Dortmund had slowed up just a little by the mid-point of the first half. They still looked dangerous every time they went forward but in a more conventional sense. They had stopped fizzing around like mustard-coloured fireworks, and City could not only cope with that they could begin to make chances for themselves and did, principally through David Silva's close control and vision. With the game still scoreless, Sergio Agüero twice and then Silva himself missed excellent openings to score goals that might have put a different complexion on the game, but as with the defensive mistake, composure eluded them just when it was most needed. Not that City deserved to win this game. They didn't, but a different result might have been possible had Hart's heroics at one end been matched by incisiveness at the other.
If City were unlucky not to take the lead on the stroke of the interval, when Silva could not adjust his feet in time to take advantage of Pablo Zabaleta's cross to an unguarded far post, fortune smiled on them seconds later when they were caught with too many men too far up the pitch and Hart again had to dive to prevent a goal when Ilkay Gündogan looked odds-on to score. That was the only bit of truly naive defending by the home side in the first half, and they got away with it. Maybe Mancini knew what he was doing when he requested his goalkeeper to concentrate on stopping the shots, because that is precisely what he did.
Without Hart's saves, City could easily have been two or three goals in arrears by the break and double that amount by the end. The eye-catching Mario Götze, in particular, must have wondered what he had to do to score after being foiled again by Hart in the second half, and even the noisy and well-drilled Schwarzgelben support in the stand behind him were probably feeling the same way until Rodwell's game-changing error. Typical City really, even in Europe. They could have been thrashed, they could conceivably have won. What they did instead was lose concentration and leave themselves with an awful lot to do.
The penalty allowed a glimmer of hope and a frantic last few minutes but even when the scores had been levelled Hart was still being called upon to make saves in stoppage time. If City barely merited a draw, their outstanding goalkeeper most certainly did. A point is better than nothing, and given their outrageous luck in this game it is still possible City might salvage something from the group, but to do that they must learn to live up to their promises. Not to mention pacify Balotelli and keep an eye on an unused and mutinous-looking Carlos Tevez.