Column: Losing well to Madrid is progress for City

Jose Mourinho should send his dry-cleaning bill to Roberto Mancini, with an attached note: “Roberto, will you pay this? It was, after all, partly your fault.”

Sliding on his knees in exaltation across the turf of the Santiago Bernabeu stadium left grass stains on the Real Madrid manager’s trousers.

But the celebration was a backhanded compliment to Mancini and his team, Manchester City. It showed that Mourinho regards the English champion as a force to be reckoned with, even though this is only its second Champions League season. Mourinho surely would not have soiled his beautiful suit had this been a mere run-of-the-mill Madrid victory over one of Europe’s lesser teams. And that, for City, must count as progress.

Of course, losing 3-2 to a Cristiano Ronaldo goal in the 89th minute stings. “It’s not on,” grumbled City’s goalkeeper, Joe Hart. But as they regroup for their Premier League match against Arsenal on Sunday, Hart and his teammates should draw some consolation from City’s club motto: “Superbia in proelio” _ “Pride in battle.” Because, for 89 minutes in Madrid, they brought that phrase alive.

Returning to Manchester with a point from Madrid would have been better for City, three would have been ideal. But the first match of any Champions League campaign is important for broadcasting statements of intent, too.

In defeating Dynamo Kiev 4-1, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and other stars recruited by Paris Saint-Germain in an estimated (EURO)260 million ($337 million) splurge since June 2011 started to prove that they are more than just clotheshorses for brand Qatar. More performances like that will send Europe the message that the wealth of PSG’s Gulf owners is genuinely making the Parc des Princes a daunting venue for visiting teams, and not just a parking lot for the players’ luxury cars.

At Manchester United, manager Alex Ferguson intends to demonstrate that last year’s failure to reach the Champions League knockout stage won’t become a habit. Goals from Lukas Podolski and Gervinho proved there is still life at Arsenal without Robin van Persie. The same cannot be said of seven-time European champion AC Milan, jeered off the pitch after a scoreless draw with Anderlecht that showed how sorely Ibrahimovic will be missed at the San Siro.

The messages City sent from Madrid were mixed. In 42 seasons of European competition, Madrid never lost its opening match at the Bernabeu. At 2-1, City was just 5 minutes away from ruining that record dating to 1955. That City came so close to what would have amounted to a coup d’etat in European soccer should worry its other opponents in Group D, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax Amsterdam. And it planted a giant “HANDLE WITH EXTREME CAUTION” sign for Madrid’s return trip to the Etihad Stadium in Manchester on Nov. 21.

Yaya Toure showed he can reverse the tide of a game almost single-handed for City with his rampaging runs from midfield, brushing off opponents like a bowling ball through pins. Hart was impenetrable as a wall in the first half when Madrid played by far the best soccer. Carlos Tevez, so disgraceful 12 months ago when he wouldn’t do as he was told by Mancini, was a model of selfless dedication to the team, tireless and patient in a lonely attacking role.

Hart’s bitterness after Karim Benzema and then Ronaldo dramatically scored twice in four minutes to win was encouraging, too, because it demonstrated that City traveled to Madrid with more ambition than simply to acquit itself decently.

“We’re not a team that should come here and pat ourselves on the back for doing well. We’re a team that gets results,” Hart said.

Well, not this time. But the unprecedented $1 billion spent by Abu Dhabi Sheik Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan to utterly transform City since he bought the club in 2008 makes it easy to overlook how far it has come so quickly and that Tuesday was City’s first time playing Madrid.

City was playing lower league English soccer when Madrid was winning its seventh, eighth and ninth European titles in 1998, 2000 and 2002. In the late 1980s, when Madrid was jetting off to play the likes of Milan and PSV Eindhoven, City supporters were keeping up their spirits in what was then England’s Division Two by taking inflatable bananas, balls, giraffes and dinosaurs to games.

That’s old history now, but history weighs on the present, too. Individually, many of Mancini’s players have ample experience. Toure, for example, won the 2009 Champions League with Barcelona. But they looked inexperienced when they were leading Madrid _ which, as a team, in that situation, they still are. The defending was too often chaotic and the ball-retention poor, making it too easy for Madrid to get back into the game twice and, finally, to win it.

City was especially vulnerable down the right flank, with Marcelo and Ronaldo given too much space to strike. Just as Tottenham’s Gareth Bale before him, Ronaldo exposed Maicon, City’s Brazilian right-back hired from Inter in August, as sluggish against the speediest, most slippery attackers. And why Vincent Kompany ducked rather than parry Ronaldo’s winning strike was a mystery _ even to Hart, who immediately remonstrated with his captain.

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