It was a Tale of One City in the Champions League last night, as both Manchester clubs managed to overcome the odds and triumph in their last group games to progress into the knockout stage of the competition. Leeds United fans – the ones who can cast their minds back to before the start of the nightmarish downhill run to near-oblivion – will have been pleased and not a little proud to see one of our own put in a dominant display against reigning European Champions Bayern Munich.
Milner’s excellent performance for City will have just slightly nibbled away at the extreme edge of exacting the tiniest morsel of revenge for a 38-year-old injustice. Paris 1975 – ’nuff said. It’s only a crumb of comfort – but still, it was so good to see a lad with Leeds engraved on his heart sticking it up Bayern Munich, whatever shirt he was wearing. And Milner’s performance last night in the Allianz Arena was one of his very, very best.
It had started out badly for City, patently out-played in the opening movement of what would turn out to be an opus of two halves. Within twelve minutes, Bayern were ahead by two goals – albeit that both were demonstrably offside – and looked in fair shape to inflict utter humiliation on the out-foxed Mancunians. This pattern held for the first twenty minutes or so, but then City started to edge their way, inexorably, into a game that was becoming more of a contest as they gained some sort of hold in midfield. On 28 minutes, James Milner made the first of his three crucial interventions, stooping to reach a deep cross beyond the far post and – somehow – angling himself to head it accurately back across the six-yard box where Silva was on hand to finish. Half time arrived with City one behind, a situation they would have snatched your hand off for after the early lop-sided exchanges.
In the second half, City managed to retain control against a Bayern side who, on this evidence, seem to have a slight weakness for complacency. One of the main guilty parties in that respect was Brazilian defender Dante, an extravagantly-gifted individual who, nevertheless, seems less than keen on some of the one-to-one responsibilities of any effective defender. He was guilty of a slapdash challenge on Milner deep inside Bayern’s penalty area on 53 minutes. It would have been relatively simple to jockey the City player until he ran out of room and options, but Dante challenged, fouled – and it was a nailed-on penalty. Kolarov’s conversion was a mix of placement and power, giving Neuer in the Munich goal not an earthly. City were level at 2-2, needing an unlikely two further goals to top the group – and Bayern, unable to rid themselves of that two-nil complacency, were rattled and shaken.
In the event, City were doomed to fall just short of winning their group, but the victory that a third goal won them will be an enormous boost, possibly for their season as a whole. Last season Arsenal won 2-0 here, and they have hardly looked back since. Such is the size of the achievement; beating Bayern at home is not given to ordinary teams. When that winner came it was Milner, naturally, who struck the decisive blow. A right wing cross flew straight through the Munich area, confusing and bypassing two defenders. Milner, advancing from the left on a curving run, managed to open up his body shape to send a first-time right foot shot bending inside Neuer’s left hand post for a finish of beauty and a joy forever.
Bayern looked shattered and bewildered as they first pressed desperately for an equaliser and then played out time in the knowledge that a one-goal defeat would still see them win the group. Even then, more casual and lackadaisical defending from Dante almost let in sub Negredo for a fourth to complete what would have been a disaster for the Germans. On the night, they had deservedly been beaten by a City side that had got its act together to great effect – but there is little doubt that Bayern will address their shortcomings and come back strongly, as they did after the Arsenal defeat. Just ask Barcelona and Dortmund about that.
Meanwhile, back in England, the Tale of One City was playing itself out in much less glamorous vein as Man U managed to overcome a Shakhtar Donetsk side which unquestionably out-played them for the bulk of the ninety minutes. One decisive finish from Phil Jones, a chance dispatched with a striker’s touch and assurance, was the difference between the teams at the final whistle, and Shakhtar went into the Europa League as Man U topped the group. But this game had been about the away side failing to take advantage of its superior passing and movement, particularly in the first half when their hosts simply couldn’t get near them. Shakhtar had done everything but score, and you couldn’t help but wonder if they really were as good as Man U made them look.
It’s goals that count though and, consummate as they occasionally seemed, Shakhtar have disappeared from this year’s Champions League with only themselves to blame for that. Whether the Pride of Devon progress much further will depend on the draw – normally quite kind to them – and whether they can shake themselves out of the one-paced game they’re currently playing under an increasingly-anxious David Moyes.
On an evening when all of Manchester – as well as the Home Counties/West Country hotbeds of Man U support – had cause to celebrate victory in Europe, it was, more than anything, Jamie Milner’s night. His display in helping City to a quite magnificent comeback victory was notable to say the least, and should serve to quell a few murmurings that he’s no long quite “at it” for this level. If Milner became available for transfer at any point in the next few years, there would be no shortage of takers – and on this evidence it would be a lucky club indeed that secured his services. One fond dream of Leeds fans everywhere must be that – if we did secure promotion in the short-term – Milner would perhaps return to Elland Road to be our elder statesman.
How appropriate that would be for the former Elland Road Wunderkind – and what a welcome he would receive. In the meantime, it did the hearts of the Leeds faithful good to see him battering Bayern, something that must be high on the bucket list of anyone with LUFC in their DNA. Well played, James Milner – still a great lad and still a class act.