Manchester, England: Manchester City lives to fight another day in the Champions League — just.
In reality, the big-spending English champions is unlikely to advance from the group stage for the second successive season after being held to a 2-2 draw by Ajax on Tuesday.
“It’s not the case that we’re not good enough for the Champions League,” City captain Vincent Kompany said.
City conceded twice in the opening 17 minutes from corners, with Siem de Jong exploiting the defensive frailties with a close-range finish and a header.
Although Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero hauled City back in contention, the hosts couldn’t produce a winner.
Aguero had a goal ruled out for offside before Mario Balotelli was denied a penalty in stoppage time when he thought his shirt was tugged, prompting City manager Roberto Mancini to confront referee Peter Rasmussen on the pitch at the final whistle.
“The referee and his staff were really poor tonight,” said Mancini, who could face UEFA sanctions. “I think that we scored three goals.”
But City didn’t and remains bottom of Group D with two points.
It must now beat Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in the remaining matches to have any chance of advancing. Even then, City would need results to go its way when Ajax plays Dortmund on Nov. 21 and Madrid on Dec. 4.
City is six points behind Dortmund, four back from Madrid and two adrift of Ajax.
“If our destiny is this and we win the next two games and we go to the second stage, our destiny is that we will win the Champions League,” Mancini said.
Ajax coach Frank de Boer isn’t giving up on the Champions League, either.
“We will try to get a result against Dortmund and try to get second place,” De Boer said.
Yet he struggled to explain how his team is fifth in the Dutch league but was able to beat the Premier League champions 3-1 two weeks ago and hold them on Tuesday.
“It’s very hard to show the quality every single match,” De Boer said. “It’s nothing to do with the skills how you play football. It’s a mental question, in part due to having a young team.”
But Europe continues to expose City’s shortcomings. City is doing well in the Premier League — unbeaten and sitting third, just two points behind leader Manchester United — but has still rarely looked convincing.
City’s defense took only nine minutes to collapse, two weeks after losing 3-1 in Amsterdam to Ajax.
After Matija Nastasic failed to clear Ricardo van Rhijn’s corner with a header, the ball was turned goal-ward by Niklas Moisander and De Jong was on hand at the post to hook the ball into the net.
With Ajax in the ascendancy, the Dutch side again prospered from a corner eight minutes later.
And again it was De Jong.
Meeting Christian Eriksen’s corner at the near post, he evaded his markers to flick a header past goalkeeper Joe Hart at the near post.
“We conceded two stupid goals, because in a very important game you can’t concede two goals on corners,” Mancini said.
The players accepted that.
“It’s very important to defend as a team when corners come in, and we’ve probably let ourselves down on those two occasions,” Kompany said. “Those two goals were really not good. We’ll look back at the game, try to see what went wrong, and try to improve.”
But after a woeful start, a piece of sublime skill from Toure pulled City back into the game.
Samir Nasri’s cross wasn’t fully cleared, and Toure found the space to bring the ball down with his chest and volley it past Kenneth Vermeer.
City was denied an equalizer on the half-hour when Pablo Zabaleta’s header was thwarted by Vermeer’s one-handed save.
City responded to the deficit at halftime by bringing Balottelli on for Javi Garcia, and the hosts made a powerful start to the second half.
But Ajax provided a reminder of its threat when De Jong struck the ball from outside the penalty area, only to be denied by Hart’s two-handed save.
Aguero, though, squandered a golden opening on the hour. After doing the hard work by rounding Vermeer on the right, Aguero slipped — for the third time in the match — before he could tee up a teammate in front of goal.
There was no slip-up in the 74th. The Argentina striker kept his footing to finish skillfully after latching onto Balotelli’s flick-on.
After Balotelli had powerful header pushed away, Aguero thought he had produced the required winner when he nudged the ball over the line from close range.
He was judged to be offside and then Balotelli was denied a penalty as the game ended in acrimony.
SCHALKE COMEBACK TO EARN DRAW
Schalke 04 bravely battled back from two goals down to draw 2-2 with visitors Arsenal on Tuesday as goals from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Jefferson Farfan maintained their slim lead in their Champions League Group B.
First half goals from Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud seemed to be meting out immediate justice for Arsenal‘s 2-0 defeat by the Germans in London a fortnight ago.
Schalke however, devoured their lead with Dutchman Huntelaar cutting the deficit in first half stoppage time and Peruvian Farfan completing their comeback with a deflected shot midway through the second half.
The result leaves the group wide open with Schalke in the lead on eight points and Arsenal a point behind in second place. Olympiakos beat Montpellier 3-1 to increase their tally to six points.
“I have to give my team a compliment for recovering from a two goal deficit,” Schalke coach Huub Stevens told reporters. “We reacted brilliantly. Thankfully we scored just before half time. That was psychologically a big advantage for us.”
For Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger, his team showed the response he wanted after a string of bad results have left them seventh in the Premier League following Saturday’s defeat by Manchester United.
“At 2-0 you have not won the game and with the physical quality of the German team it is not over,” Wenger told reporters. “They have a lot of quality and they never give up so overall I never felt that the game was over even at 2-0.”
“After all the stick we got after Saturday’s game it was important to show a good response. We played against a good team and it was a bit unfortunate that we concede a goal just before half-time.”
Arsenal had Jack Wilshere back in the team as he continued his return from a long lay-off as well as Walcott, who was doubtful after missing training this week due to illness.
Schalke, who beat Arsenal 2-0 to snap their 45-game unbeaten run at home to foreign visitors stretching back to 2003, had them on the backfoot from the start with the Germans eager to win and advance with two games to spare.
Inquisitive shots from Christian Fuchs and Ibrahim Afellay forced keeper Vito Mannone to good saves as Schalke set the pace.
Arsenal, displaying an initial lack of confidence when they had possession, needed 18 minutes to find their way into the game and they did it with a bang.
Giroud took advantage of a Roman Neutstaedter back header to race clear but failed to beat keeper Unnerstall with Walcott slipping through to tap in from close range.
The 26-year-old Frenchman was on target in the 26th, drilling in a diving header from a Lukas Podolski cross.
Dutch striker Huntelaar, who had scored in all three previous group matches, fired Schalke back into the reckoning on the stroke of halftime but the forward, nicknamed ‘the hunter’, however, could not add another from point blank range after the restart.
Keeper Vito Mannone was kept busy but could do nothing when Farfan turned the game on its head, drilling in the equaliser in the 67th with Thomas Vermaelen deflecting it into the net.
Arsenal could have stolen three points with the final kick of the game but Walcott fired on keeper Lars Unnerstall from eight metres out.