Aguero 59, 81 Balotelli (pen) 74
Fernandez 32 Van Wolfswinkel 40
- Matchday centre
- Match reports
- 15 March 2012 22:06
- Posted by Peter Ferguson
So it's to be the title or nothing. But what a glorious Europa League exit, back from the brink of humiliation with three second-half goals that almost pulled off Mission Impossible.
Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli gave Sporting the fright of their season by spearheading what came within a whisker of the mother of all comebacks when Joe Hart's header was tipped around the post in the last seconds.
Defeat on away goals was no enjoyment, but it was somehow a fillip in the circumstances after successive defeats had suddenly put a question mark against City's potential to finish the season with silverware, no matter how good the pedigree of the players at Roberto Mancini's disposal.
Already unseated as Barclays Premier League leaders by the defeat at Swansea, the Blues went into this tie as England's last men standing in the Europa League. They finished it a beaten team, but the Portuguese were a mighty relieved outfit.
By rights City should have ended the evening licking their wounds from an aggregate defeat by Sporting, who came close to inflicing City's first home defeat in Europe in 16 games since the shock troops of Midtjylland nicked it 1-0 in a 2008 qualifier.
But the resurrection of City's spirit and buccaneering style in a breathtaking second half left fans going into the chill night relishing the head-to-head title run-in with United, also now left with just one target to aim for.
It's not often this season that City have been made to look second best in a first half, but Sporting managed the feat with almost alarming ease. That they also crowned their efforts with two goals spelled an inevitable exit for Mancini's men.
The opener came via Matias Fernandez's brilliant free kick after 32 minutes, curled expertly around the desperate straining fingers of fully-stretched England goalkeeper Joe Hart, but the culprit for Sporting's ascendancy was Balotelli.
The striker tracked back, as he is no doubt instructed to do, but his clumsy attempt at a tackle on Emiliano Insua just outside the box was an invitation to the Lisbon player to tumble as soon as he felt contact.
It was an unfortunate trait that infected Sporting's play all evening, the temptation to go for the theatrical, which is not to say that it was incorrectly called by the referee
The foul proved too costly for City. As the Portuguese bench celebrated with all the joy of cup winners, the Blues realised that the worst had happened, and they now needed three goals to reach the quarter finals.
It didn't take long for Sporting to allow their football to blossom in such an inviting atmosphere, and on 40 minutes Marat Izmailov delivered the most incisive cross of the evening to give the onrushing Ricky van Wolfswinkel a chance at the far post that he could hardly miss.
Cue a repeat of the touchline jigs and hugs from Sporting, and a sinking feeling for the home crowd with little prospect of recovering the four goals that were now demanded to prevail.
Yet the impression should not be that City threw in the towel, far from it. Before the hour was up, Sergio Aguero had pulled one back, taking a Yaya Toure pass with aplomb to turn and hit the ball low past Rui Patricio.
The goal gave the Blues fresh heart, and when Aguero was sent tumbling by Renato Neto inches inside the penalty area, Balotelli stepped up for one of those spot kicks, this time leaving the keeper flat-footed as he rolled the ball past him.
And when Aguero, unmarked at the far post with the minutes ticking away, pounced on a corner to knock the ball past Patricio and give City the lead on the night, it was the cue for a nailbiting finale that even Sporting's timewasting tactics could not quite quell.
Had Hart's header found the net, pandemonium would surely have ensued. As it was, this became a message of defiance to the neighbours. It is, as they say, game on.