x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Cavani takes shine off for Man City's Champions League debut

Napoli spoil Manchester City's party but it made for a memorable occasion nonetheless.

Manchester City's Sergio Aguero, left, attempts to take the ball past Napoli's Salvatore Aronica.
Manchester City's Sergio Aguero, left, attempts to take the ball past Napoli's Salvatore Aronica.

During Manchester City's long barren years, the club's anthem, Blue Moon, served as the soundtrack to a thousand disappointments. Last night the Champions League's ubiquitous official song served as the aural indication a new era has begun at Etihad Stadium.

It is a time of boundless possibilities but, while Manchester City mix it with the stars, they were nonetheless brought down to earth by accomplished but obdurate opponents.

Napoli illustrated why this is the competition's toughest group, the side seeded fourth deserving their draw, and leading for six minutes before Aleksandar Kolarov cancelled out Edinson Cavani's goal. Both sides also rattled the woodwork in an end-to-end encounter, but the third-placed finishers in England and Italy could not be separated.

If the scoreline suggested an anti-climactic return to Europe's premier club competition for City after a wait of 43 years - Napoli, absent since 1990, are scarcely regulars on this stage either - it made for a memorable occasion nonetheless, the raucous Italians adding to the atmosphere and, in their contrasting ways, both sides contributing to the entertainment.

With the trio of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik and Cavani, Napoli brimmed with counter-attacking menace. City, now that Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri have joined Edin Dzeko and David Silva in the front four, are a team transformed.

There is a new-found positivity to them, one that will take the attack to their opponents from the first whistle. Nasri's crisp third-minute drive thudded into the advertising hoardings behind Morgan de Sanctis' goal.

If attack is the best form of defence, it can also double up as the first line. Having initially won the ball, Dzeko powered forwards to meet Aguero's precise pass. The Bosnian's shot curled past both De Sanctis and his far post.

While Aguero is the new darling of the City support, they do not have a monopoly on outstanding Argentine talent. Lavezzi demonstrated as much, meeting Juan Zuniga's pass with a delightful touch to send Vincent Kompany sprawling, and then bending a beautiful shot against Joe Hart's bar.

The woodwork was required to preserve parity at either end. Aguero, displaying that his gifts extend beyond scoring, showed his class as a supplier, a turn of pace and an unselfish lay-off allowing Yaya Toure the chance to follow his FA Cup final winner with another landmark goal. It was one the Ivorian almost accepted, his shot striking the underside of the bar, leaving Toure with head in hands in disbelief.

City spent the majority of the match going forward, a bold policy that enabled Napoli to try to catch them on the break. The wisdom of Walter Mazzarri's tactics, along with the class in his side's ranks, was apparent again when Hamsik's low volley had to be cleared off his own line by the retreating Kompany.

Then came a more telling blow. Napoli again made a swift transition from defence to attack, Christian Maggio striding forward from the centre circle purposefully and sliding in Cavani. The Uruguayan, scorer of 33 goals last season, placed his shot between Hart's legs.

City's response was impressive. They were inches from an equaliser, Nasri advancing on the left flank and picking out Aguero, whose rising shot clipped the bar. Moments later, it mattered not. Kolarov whipped in a free kick, a seemingly unsighted De Sanctis barely moved and City had made their point.

It brought the left-back the honour of scoring City's first Champions League goal, something his set-piece expertise had almost earned him earlier.

Then a free kick was more cross than shot but, with no one applying a touch, De Sanctis had to plunge to his right to prevent the Serb from scoring. When he took aim again, the goalkeeper's inactivity was costly, and City's reward for their adventurousness was forthcoming.

It is a start and, with a trip to the Allianz Arena to face Bayern Munich in 12 days' time, it scarcely gets any easier for City. But it is their first experience of a particularly exclusive private party and they must hope that, when the music eventually stops, they have long since extricated themselves from this trickiest of groups.

sports@thenational.ae


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