MANCHESTER CITY 2, VILLARREAL 1.
Substitute Sergio Aguero’s dramatic late winner pulled Manchester City back from the brink of almost certain Champions League elimination.
City’s dreams of Euro glory appeared to have died until the Argentine struck seconds before the end of the three minutes of stoppage time.
Spanish side Villarreal had looked set to earn a draw at the Etihad Stadium. That would have left City with two points from three group games and progression to the knockout phase all but disappeared.
Aguero’s goal suddenly puts a completely different complexion on the group as City now have four points as the mid-way point, though they remain third behind Bayern Munich and Napoli.
Roberto Mancini spoke about the importance of the victory admitting they had enjoyed an element of good fortune.
The City manager said: “It would have been very difficult to go through had we not won this game. It was our last chance and we needed to be lucky.
“It was very important to win our first game in the Champions League. Now anything can happen in the group apart from first place.”
Mancini admitted it looks as though City will have to win in Naples which he believes will decide second spot in the group.
The City manager believes his side deserved to win given the number of chances they created. However, he says they need to be more clinical and ruthless in front of goal.
Mancini added: “In the game when you have one chance you must score.
“It was very difficult as Villarreal had all their players behind the ball and played on the counter attack. If they had scored again, the game would have been finished.”
It had been another largely frustrating night for City who laboured against an out-of-form Spanish side and at times the learning curve in their debut Champions League campaign appeared too great for them to overcome.
Villarreal were up against it as they without five key players, including Brazilian striker Nilmar and Argentine front man Marco Ruben, had not picked up a point or scored a goal in this season’s Champions League.
Yet, after little over three minutes the Spaniards had stunned City as they snatched an unexpected lead.
Giuseppe Rossi, who once plied his trade across the city at Old Trafford, had a shot which Joe Hart could only parry and the rebound fell invitingly to midfielder Cani who slotted the ball under the hapless keeper.
City laboured for much of the opening half making little inroads against a well organised Spanish defence.
Ironically their most dangerous attacking outlet was Aleksander Kolarov as the Serbian left-back saw a long-range drive whistle past an upright and he was then denied by a super save by Diego Lopez to keep out his goalbound free kick.
And it was Kolarov who provided the assist for City’s equaliser a couple of minutes before the break. He delivered a probing low cross from the left which central defender Carlos Marchena put through his own goal as he slid in to make a clearance as Edin Dzeko was lurking behind him.
It was a measure of Mancini’s worry that he made a first-half substitution replacing Adam Johnson with Gareth Barry to provide added solidity in midfield.
Lopez made a terrific save soon after the restart to thwart Dzeko as City started the second period in the ascendancy.
Villarreal were still a threat and Rossi had two clear-cut chances, the second goal attempt well turned away by Hart. Borja Valero also had a drive which was only narrowly wide.
City turned to the fit-again striking sensation Aguero just after the hour mark as he replaced Nigel de Jong.
There was a bizarre incident in which half the ground thought Kolarov had put City ahead from a terrific free kick only for the ball to fly into the side netting.
City made their final throw of the dice with 10 minutes left when Nasri was replaced by James Milner.
It looked as though it was not to be as Dzeko missed two glorious chances late on while Pablo Zabeleta had a header well saved.
With the third and final minute of stoppage time almost completed, City conjured a dramatic winner.
Zabaleta fired over a low cross from the right, David Silva flicked on the ball and Aguero slide in at the far post to find the net from almost on the line. It was his ninth and arguably the most important goal of his season.
The relief was palpable as Mancini and No 2 Brian Kidd embraced as the decibel levels almost lifted the roof at the Etihad Stadium.
It was a measure of how fine the line between success and failure was that Villarreal only just had time to kick off again before the final whistle sounded.