Manchester City put on a pre-match firework display for their fans, which was thoughtful of them, as there was no guarantee of anything dazzling or explosive being produced on the pitch once the game started.
Late red cards do not count as pyrotechnic entertainment, sadly, and neither do they advance City’s now almost extinguished hopes of progress.
Their European campaign has been one long disappointment, a whole series of damp squibs. This latest was a pity as the club had successfully taken steps to fill their ground after the criticism that came their way through the empty seats against Roma in the last game, though even the takers of a reduced-price two-for-one ticket offer probably felt like asking for refunds when their side went a goal down in less than two minutes.
At that precise moment an atmosphere which had been building up nicely drained away to leave a stadium as eerily quiet as the one City encountered in Moscow in their behind-closed-doors fixture last month, partly because the defending that led to the softest of set-piece goals had been so naïve, although once the shock subsided the home side were able to reassert themselves quite quickly.
Yaya Touré’s equaliser settled the nerves, an entertainingly open contest developed before half-time, but just as City fans were allowing themselves to get excited, Gaël Clichy gifted the visitors another goal.
This was the night when City’s Champions League campaign was supposed to achieve lift-off. Never mind that Manuel Pellegrini’s Premier League champions are not exactly lighting up the sky, a win would not only have been their first in this season’s competition it would have lifted their qualification hopes.
And these were opponents that City put five goals past last season. Much of the pre-match discussion had centred on whether City would have the firepower to grab the win the situation demanded, whether Touré would be allowed a free attacking role or whether Pellegrini would be left regretting his decision to let Alvaro Negredo go without signing a replacement. Stevan Jovetic does make rather a lightweight foil for Sergio Agüero, as it happens, and he is too frequently injured.
There was also further evidence against Moscow that the muscular energy of James Milner and the pace of Jesús Navas to not quite add up to the guile and invention of the injured David Silva, but the overpowering conclusion from this game is that the attack is not what is letting City down. Some of their defending would have been woeful at Championship level, let alone Champions League. In the first half Clichy in particular seemed to give the ball to opposition players more often than he found his team-mates, while the normally reliable Vincent Kompany was regularly caught out of position.
The first CSKA goal could be considered unlucky from a City point of view since not every referee would have viewed the free-kick milked from Clichy as deliberate handball, though there was still the question of why the marking was so poor from a set piece on the edge of the area that Seydou Doumbia was allowed the simplest of free headers.
The visitors’ second, the one that convinced the home crowd that this was not going to be a splendid recovery but another long night punctuated by errors, was even more unforgivable.
Martin Demichelis had already made a telling intervention to break up a CSKA attack, all Clichy had to do was pick up the loose ball and head upfield with it, or take his time to find someone in a more forward position. Instead he swept the ball carelessly infield without looking, straight to the feet of a grateful Bebras Natcho, who had no trouble playing Doumbia behind an already stretched defence for his second goal of the evening.
It was not even Clichy’s first such mistake, just the worst example of a poor all-round display. Even after going behind a second time the crowd made themselves heard in an effort to lift their side, though perhaps inevitably a few boos were heard as they trooped off at the interval.
In the interests of balance and fairness it should be stated that cries of “Come on, City” could be heard from most sides of the ground in the second half and that Clichy, allowed a chance to redeem himself, went some way to doing that with a recovering tackle to dispossess Doumbia when CSKA were threatening another dangerous break. But it was not enough.
Nothing they did was going to be enough to atone for their first-half lapses. A bullocking run from Touré ended without the penalty he was looking for, a searching cross by Milner just failed to pick out Agüero, Pablo Zabaleta found Milner in the area only to see his team-mate overrun the ball.
It was another frustrating night in a frustrating campaign, but make no mistake, City were not unlucky here. They were outplayed. On their own ground. By CSKA Moscow. Even before they went down to 10 men. Then nine men. The referee did not cover himself in glory with some confusing and contentious decisions in the closing minutes, but defeat was all that City deserved.
If Pellegrini really imagines they can get anywhere near a Champions League final with a team this unreliable and a defence this porous, he probably needs the reality check more than his players.