It has often been quoted that fine margins can settle the outcome of football matches and tournaments with Tuesday evenings contests in Champions League Group E proving no exception. Bayern Munich had already clinched the group ahead of the fifth set of matches with CSKA Moscow, Roma and Manchester City vying for the second qualifying position. With Roma leading 1-0 in Moscow deep into added time of the second period, their place in the knockout phase appeared assured, but results are never decided until the final whistle.
CSKA Moscow and Roma entered this round of ties on four points with Manchester City facing a home leg against Bayern Munich hoping to increase their two point haul. Such were the complications of the qualification rules and group situation that defeat for Manchester City would not necessarily eliminate them from the competition.
As it happened, the tie in Moscow started much earlier than the others that evening and Roma assumed the lead via a Francesco Totti free-kick. It seemed comfortable for the Italian team on the night yet they wasted several chances before a cross cum shot by Vassili Berezoutski evaded everybody and entered the net in the 93rd minute to equalise for CSKA.
Thus prior to the tie at the Etihad Stadium, both CSKA and Roma were locked on five points apiece with Manchester City fielding a team minus Edin Dzeko and David Silva due to injury and the suspended Yaya Toure. Unfortunately for Roma, Bayern Munich decided to relegate both Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze to the substitute’s bench and with captain Philipp Lahm injured, the German team were weaker than the team which routed Roma 7-1 in Italy.
Bayern Munich then conceded an early penalty from which Sergio Aguero converted and which also resulted in the dismissal of Mehdi Benatia for his challenge on the Argentinian striker. When Xabi Alonso and Robert Lewandowski netted prior to the half-time interval to claim a 2-1 lead for the German team, the situation appeared ominous for the City.
Throughout much of the second half, 10 man Bayern dominated possession with their slick interplay but their incisive counter attacking football was restricted by the imbalance of numbers in their team. With 10 minutes remaining, Manchester City were beginning to look bereft of ideas as an attacking unit.
Yet that’s when the errors from Bayern Munich began. Firstly, Pep Guardiola replaced the influential Franck Ribery with the clearly unfit Bastian Schweinsteiger resulting in the loss of some midfield authority for the German team.
Then an uncharacteristic wayward pass on 85 minutes from Alonso allowed Aguero the opportunity to equalise for City. He duly obliged and then an even worse mistake just outside the penalty area by Jerome Boateng gifted Aguero a hat-trick in the 91st minute. It was an unlikely 3-2 victory for Manchester City and now they just need to win or draw 2-2 at Roma, and for CSKA fail to beat Bayern, and their position in the knockout phase will be confirmed.
It is sometimes mentioned that football can be a strange game at times, but as Roma can testify at this moment, it can also be a cruel sport with delicate margins defining success and failure.