Manchester City came from behind to draw 2-2 with Ajax, but remain rooted to the bottom of Group D
Preamble: Seventeen years ago, a Manchester City side with a central midfield pairing of Steve Lomas and Garry Flitcroft were about halfway through the decline that saw them go from fifth in the top-flight to mid-table in the third tier in the space of six and a half seasons. An Ajax side containing Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Jari Litmanen and Patrick Kluivert (on the bench) had just won the European Cup. How times change. City now have more dough than a workaholic baker, while the Amsterdam club haven't gone beyond the group stages in the Champions League since 2005-06 and can consider themselves to be on something of an upswing having actually made the tournament proper for the last couple of seasons. They're clubs who seem poles apart these days in outlook and expectation, which is why it was such a shock a fortnight ago when Frank de Boer's side piled the pressure on Roberto Mancini with a 3-1 win over the English champions.
Yet Ajax are in pretty miserable shape in the Eredivisie. They've not won in four attempts and lost 2-0 at home to Vitesse at the weekend. They are fifth, but trail the leaders, FC Twente, by 10 points, the same gap that separates them from 16th-place PEC Zwolle. And while domestically they've been, like Hard Fi's third single, hard to beat (yes, a seven-year-old musical reference counts as bleeding edge to me), in Europe they've been, like Hard Fi's ninth single, good for nothing (yes I had to look that up). That is until City rocked up at the Amsterdam Arena and watched as the home side partied like it was 1995.
Still, the Dutch giants are supposed to be the whipping boys in Group D and City are huge odds-on favourites tonight. Anything other than a win and Mancini's side can pretty much kiss goodbye to the Champions League for another season and Mancini himself can start thinking about polishing up the CV that had seven or eight clubs clamouring over his services towards the end of last season.
The teams are in:
Man City: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Nastasic, Clichy, Javi Garcia, Barry, Nasri, Toure, Aguero, Tevez. Subs: Pantilimon, Maicon, Dzeko, Sinclair, Kolarov, Balotelli, Meppen-Walter.
Ajax: Vermeer, Van Rhijn, Alderweireld, Moisander, Blind, De Jong, Poulsen, Schone, Boerrigter, Eriksen, Babel. Subs: Cillessen, Enoh, Sana, Veltman, Denswil, Dijks, Fischer.
Referee: Peter Rasmussen (Denmark)
So Ajax look like they've stuck with the 4-3-3 that served them so well in Amsterdam while Mancini looks to have opted for solidity and a three-man midfield wall of Garcia, Barry and Touré.
Because I've just seen this. That and the clocks, obviously. We have clocks.Just over quarter of an hour til kick-off. How do I know?
Here's Bobby Manc: "They [the players] don't need to have my passion. They need to play football like they can."
ADVERTS, ADVERTS, ADVERTS … Gamble, get new car insurance, get a new telly (I think …), drink Australian beer, buy a games console …
PEEP! Off we go then. City in sky blue, Ajax in a hideous lime green and deep blue away monstrosity.
1 min: Nasri wriggles some space on the edge of the area but opts not to shoot, then Touré tumbles optimistically in the box.
2 min: Babel charges at Kompany with the ball at his feet, but the City centre-half stays cool and nicks the ball away with little fuss.
3 min: Eriksen unfurls the first shot of the game, but it makes it little more than five yards before it slaps into a City rump.
5 min: Eriksen bounces off Toure in midfield and City flood forward. Aguero shoots. Deflected over. Corner. Claimed by Vermeer.
6 min: "I've never liked Wenger (for so many reasons...)" begins Matt Dony, "but I've always thought that, had he bought Babel, he would've made an absolute star out of him. For all Benitez's tactical sharpness, he didn't seem to develop players as well as some other managers. But now it's probably too late for Babel to really fulfil his potential. Good player, not a great player."
7 min: Nasri feeds the ball through to Zabaleta. It's a decent chance for the full-back, but he blazes over.
8 min: Nastasic skews Van Rhijn's low cross behind for an Ajax corner …
GOAL! Man City 0-1 Ajax (De Jong 9) Holy cow! How did that go in? From City's point of view it's softer than Mr Soft's soft underbelly. The corner isn't dealt with by the Nastasic, the ball is prodded back across goal and from the tightest of tight angles the Ajax captain lofts the ball over Hart and into the roof of the net.
10 min: City are stung into action and look for an immediate response. Tevez forces a couple of corners. From the second Nastacic squeezes of a shot as the ball drops but it's straight at Vermeer. The visitors are sitting Mariana Trench-deep, though, inviting pressure.
12 min: "I think that goal is one of those megalolz that the kids are talking about nowadays," reckons Graeme Neill. To be honest, I wouldn't know a megalol if it painted itself purple and danced naked on top of a harpsichord, singing 'Megalolz are here again."
13 min: The Etihad is quiet. Very quiet.
15 min: Schöne puts Babel away down the left channel, and the former Liverpool man does well to win a corner …
GOAL! Man City 0-2 Ajax (De Jong 17) … and it's another! And it's De Jong again! This time he gets across the front to meet a near-post inswinger and guides a free header past Joe Hart. Marking? What marking? If Manchester City were a pair of trainers they'd be allowed on a badminton court.
18 min: Tevez sparks panic in the Ajax backline with another low cross. The visitors clear for a corner, then deal with that.
19 min: Two corners for Ajax, two goals. You can have all the rinky-dink passing options up front that you like but set pieces are such a huge part of the game. The Ajax fans are singing Always Look on the Bright Side Of Life.
GOAL! Manchester City 1-2 Ajax (Touré 22) And City now at least have a bright side to look on. Again they attack down the right. The cross falls to Touré at the back post and the Ivorian chests down before volleying acrobatically past Verbeer.
23 min: That was something a bit special from Touré, but to be honest City have looked dangerous whenever they've gone forward.
24 min: Kompany gets to Boerrigter's cross just ahead of Schöne as Ajax foray forward.
26 min: Nasri crosses. Zabaleta shoots. Deflected. It's looping in. It's headed away by Van Rhijn. If I had a £1, the time, and the predilection for compulsive gambling, my £1 would still be on a home win here.
28 min: In the other game in Group D, Dortmund have gone ahead in the Bernabéu.
30 min: Javi García lofts in a beautiful sand-wedge of a pass in towards the ever-impressive Zabaleta who has burst through the Ajax backline like an Alien through John Hurt's stomach. He shows none of the predatory instincts of the aforementioned extra terrestrial, however, and can only guide his header gently into the arms of Vermeer.
32 min: Ajax seem to have weathered the initial storm after Touré's goal. De Jong smites an effort at goal from 30-odd yards, but it trundles well wide.
34 min: Pepe has equalised for Real in Spain, but that's all irrelevant if the score stays the same in Manchester.
35 min: Barry attempts to thread the ball through for Touré on halfway, but he's only succeeds in finding a clump of Ajax players. The visitors beginning to dominate the ball now.
37 min: Ajax have done very well to suck the wind from City's sails and the noise from the terraces. City have barely had a touch in the last five or 10 minutes and there's barely been a peep from the crowd.
38 min: De Jong sloppily gives the ball away 30 yards from his own goal, but City can't quite plough through.
39 min: Tevez goes down on the edge of the box, but the referee makes that wavey-scoopy-get-up-get-up motion with his arms and we play on.
41 min: It's been a bad night for Agüero, Barry and Nasri thus far. Nastasic is still to convince too.
43 min: Grumblegrumblegrumble go the terraces as City work the ball back to Hart rather than go forward.
44 min: With seconds until the break, City force a corner …
45 min: … Vermeer flaps, but gets enough on it.
PEEP! And that's the break. A pretty even half in the end.
Balotelli is out on the Etihad pitch, warming up. Looks like he'll be on after the break. Wouldn't be surprised to see Nasri give way.
And indeed Balotelli is coming on but it's Javi Garcia who is to be replaced
PEEP! Ajax get the second half underway.
46 min: DOOF! Blind goes hammering into Nasri and gets a booking for his trouble. It looked nasty but replays show the Ajax left-back slipped on his way in to the challenge, to be fair.
47 min: Vermeer gathers the resultant free-kick.
48 min: Agüero skitters through looking dangerous on the edge of the box, but his footing goes at the worst possible moment and Ajax clear.
49 min: Touré comes steamrollering out of defence like a runaway tank. His pass finds Agüero, whose legs are found by the feet of Alderweireld. No free-kick given, but then Tevez tumbles on the left edge of the box and City do have their free-kick. It's a dangerous one …
50 min: Barry zips it in at knee height to Nastasic, but his first-time effort soars over the bar.
51 min: At the other end, Babel hoofs a cross hopelessly out of play for a goal kick.
52 min: Tevez goes down again on the edge of the D. Free-kick. This is a real chance …
53 min: … Touré pings it into the top of the wall, Clichy prods the rebound back into Aguero, who tucks it past the onrushing Vermeer. Celebrations are cut short by the linesman's flag. The Argentine was a yard offside.
55 min: Touré thunders into the box. Ajax don't even bother trying to stop him, but his pass into the six-yard box is cleared away. It's one-way traffic at the moment.
56 min: De Jong is given space enough for a four-bed detached house and a sizeable garage around 30 yards from goal. His effort is sweetly struck, but Joe Hart claws the ball away.
58 min: Vermeer does well to smother a cross as Aguero closes in.
60 min: Vermeer goes all Jackson Pollock as he rushes out for a through ball. Aguero nicks it past him and gets to the byline. As he turns, looking up to see who'll get a simple tap in in the middle, his feet give way again and the chance goes begging.
61 min: Ajax have offered almost nothing this half. They've not been allowed to get their pass, pass, pass, pass, passpasspasspasspasspass stuff going.
63 min: Ajax force a corner …
64 min: … Ajax, having taken two corners and scored two goals, decide to take it short. I mean really. It's cleared. Obviously.
65 min: Touré … Tevez … Barry … that bloke in the parka in the third row, some 20 yards wide of goal.
66 min: Mancini unleashes Dzeko. Off comes Tevez.
67 min: Ajax do get time for some pass, pass, pass, pass, passpasspasspasspasspass which ends up with Van Rhijn on the right, who flashes a low ball across the six-yard box. Zabaleta has to put behind, but this time City, courtesy of Joe Hart's Fist of Fury, deal with the corner.
69 min: Eriksen, so elegant he should be playing in a ball gown, helps Ajax work the ball through midfield once more. And they win a dangerous free-kick …
70 min: … De Jong spanks it goalwards and Hart makes a flying save to his left.
72 min: City have gone flatter than the mill pond in Flat Stanley's back garden.
GOAL! Manchester City 2-2 Ajax (Aguero 74) Which, of course, is a notoriously lively mill pond, with lots of waves and whirlpools and the like. Hart boots long, Balotelli heads on, and Aguero skitters on to the ball and prods beyond Vermeer.
76 min: Moisander times a challenge perfectly to deny Zabaleta as he charges into the box. Ajax are facing a tricky 15 minutes here.
77 min: City break with frightening speed but Aguero is (wrongly) judged offside from Clichy's header. That all started when Balotelli battled back to pinch Eriksen's pocket 30 yards from the City goal.
79 min: Nasri dinks in a free-kick, Balotelli sends a firm header towards goal and Vermeer sprawls to his left to make a flashy save.
82 min: Agüero goes down on the left edge of the area under Poulsen's challenge. Another dangerous free-kick …
83 min: … Blind does well to get his head on Nasri's centre.
84 min: Van Rhijn sends in another cross so vicious it has it's own theme music and finishing move. It's a corner for Ajax, but City have sorted themselves out and again clear.
85 min: Poulsen goes into the referee's Big Book of Very Bad Boys for a tug on Balotelli.
86 min: Kolarov replaces Barry and his first act is to win a corner.
87 min: Eventually Kolarov gets the chance to slide in a cross from the edge of the box, but Dzeko gets caught in two minds and can only sidefoot wide.
88 min: GOA … NO OFFSIDE! Dzeko prods through to Kolarov, and his centre is turned in by Aguero. The flag goes up, though. It's incredibly tight.
90 min: Three added minutes and in the first substitute Viktor Fischer should have done better than to poke into the side-netting.
90+2 min: Eriksen gets space and stings Hart's palms with a long-range effort. Corner …
90+3 min: … which drops out to Fischer, who wangs his shot out for a throw-in.
90+4 min: City get a free-kick on halfway. Just about time to take it …
90+5 min: … Hart pumps it in. It drops to Balotelli! Surely that's a penalty? The referee has blown … for full-time!
Well, well, well. It was Van Rhijn with a handful of Balotelli's shirt. City players surrounded the ref. Mancini came striding out from the technical area to have his say. Zabaleta (I think) was caught by the mics saying a BAD WORD. And when the dust settled it is still full-time and City are still staring down the barrel of Thursday nights on Channel Five.
It's impossible to say really whether the referee decided it wasn't a penalty and then blew for full-time or whether he blew up before making any decision.
Here's Vincent Kompany: "Should we have had a penalty? You guys will be able to judge better than me."
Right, that's it from me. Thanks for your company and emails. Be sure to stick around on site for the match report, reaction and comment. But from me, cheerio!