As the players took to the field on a chilly evening in Moscow, onlookers raised questions over the quality of the pitch. At kickoff, it was a minor inconvenience. By the second half, a combination of Twitter and the TV commentary team had decided the game was being staged in a quarry (painted green) and on a surface with the consistency of mashed potato and mushy peas. In truth, it was something in between the two -- testing, but nothing more than that.
It turned out City's biggest enemy in their 2-1 win over CSKA Moscow was themselves, as old defensive frailties reared their ugly heads. Just after the half-hour mark, despite the visitors seemingly being in control of the match, the hosts took the lead thanks to a long punt forward. Javi Garcia lost a header he shouldn't have, and all hell broke loose about why he's not fit to be playing at centre-back.
But that's a bit of an overreaction: I take the point that Garcia should do better and doesn't instill a huge deal of confidence in the fans, but to place the blame squarely on the Spaniard is to fan the flames of the rapidly spreading Make Javi Garcia A Scapegoat Campaign. He lost a header -- that was it.
However, neither Matija Nastasic nor Pablo Zabaleta covered themselves in glory -- failing to drop in to protect the makeshift centre-half when he challenged for the ball and, worse, the Argentine dropped to do nothing but play Zoran Tosic onside. As one defender moves forward to compete, another tucks in behind to offer cover in case it's needed -- it's schoolboy football, but it's schoolboy football that was ignored.
That said, recovering quickly after falling behind is becoming a trait of Manuel Pellegrini's Manchester City. Twice in the last three games the Blues have conceded the opening goal and equalised within 90 seconds. It's concerning that the defensive lapses are still present and that they're costing goals -- but at least the errors are being rectified quickly. Every cloud and all that.
This brings us on to City's in-form goal scorer. The words "in-form" don't really do Sergio Aguero justice: Five goals in his last three games make him a safe pair of boots for the manager and easily one of the first names on the team sheet. His two strikes against Moscow showed two sides to his game: The first was a measure of his calmness in front of goal, as he coolly stroked the ball into the bottom corner; the second demonstrated bravery in the face of a decapitation attempt by Igor Akinfeev.
In the end, though, a man who's been on the brutal end of a beating from all sides in recent weeks -- especially following the Blues' last Champions League outing -- sealed the victory. Joe Hart will have wanted the pitch at the Etihad to open up and consume him following the defeat to Bayern Munich, yet a mere three weeks on and he produced a save that could go a long way to seeing the club into the knockout stages of the competition for the first time.
As Nastasic had been drawn to the front post where Garcia was already challenging, the ball broke to Keisuke Honda unmarked at the back post and on the edge of the 6-yard box. A comfortable touch on his thigh set himself up to volley at goal and, in the 93rd minute, the watching fans braced themselves for only taking a point after leading for so long.
But not so: City's "shaky" and "confidence-drained" goalkeeper came up with a hugely important stop. In truth, he had little time to react to the effort and he didn't have to do a lot to make sure it ricocheted off his left calf muscle and away from goal. It wasn't an amazing save, rather a fantastic piece of goalkeeping; it was his starting position that made it easy for him to block.
The win leaves the Blues secure in second place in Group D. A win in the return fixture on Bonfire Night would virtually see the club through to the next round and six points from the opening three matches is a far more comfortable position than the Blues have been used to in recent seasons.
It's alright in this Champions League lark now that it's someone else's turn to be in the Group of Death, isn't it? Everything's coming up nicely for Pellegrini.