Goalkeeper-captain Joe is Manchester City's Hart-beat
MAN CITY 2
(Samir Nasri 60, Pablo Zabaleta 86)
Samir Nasri punctured the enemy's stubborn resistance.
Pablo Zabaleta applied the coup de grace.
But it was Joe Hart who saved Manchester City's day, as they beat Roma 2-0 in their final Group E game at the Stadio Olimpico yesterday morning (Singapore time) to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League.
Headlines around the world lauded Nasri as City's saviour, the man who masterminded the weakened visitors to a brilliant victory that underlined their resilience.
And why not?
His opening goal in the second half was a gem. As the Roma backline retreated, the 27-year-old France midfielder ate up the space in front of him before unleashing an unstoppable drive that went in off the post.
Then he showed superb awareness to thread a perfectly weighted, no-look pass that allowed Zabaleta to land the fatal blow that squashed Roma's European dreams.
But Hart, handed the captain's armband, built the foundation that started it all.
As desperation threatened to seize his teammates in front of him, the 27-year-old Englishman offered refuge amid the storm.
As the men in imperial purple took turns to go in for the kill, Hart repelled them one by one.
The 2-0 scoreline suggested a comfortable outing for the visitors, but this was in truth a backs-to-the-wall performance by Manuel Pellegrini's men.
The English Premier League champions needed a win to stand a chance of going through on the final day of the group phase.
They were missing the injured Sergio Aguero and suspended Yaya Toure, two of their most important players.
Skipper Vincent Kompany also sat out the game with a hamstring problem, while playmaker David Silva, recovering from a knee injury, was on the bench.
Roma, with striker Gervinho in fabulous form, threatened to run them over from the first whistle.
Hart, though, was in uncompromising mood.
He prevented the hosts from going ahead in the fifth minute, when he stopped Jose Holebas from point-blank range.
Then it was Gervinho's turn to be denied in the 21st minute, as Hart pulled off a wonderful finger-tip save to deny him.
But he saved his best for the second half, as Roma were hunting for the equaliser.
Kostas Manolas' header looked a sure-goal, until he instinctively tipped it onto the post.
Every stop by Hart gradually sucked the confidence out of the Roma players.
By the time the match entered its final stages, the hosts had almost nothing left in body and mind.
This was a test of City's character, and a gauge of the progress they have made in Europe.
And they came of age.
So did Hart.
We can’t get away from the fact we started the campaign poorly, but we have come good at the right time when we needed to and we have won the game. This could be a defining performance, but we need to build on it now.
— Goalkeeper Joe Hart, believing Man City’s 2-0 win over Roma is a “coming-of-age” display
'We showed we are not a one-man team'
Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini claimed he always had faith his team could defy the odds in Rome and qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League.
City overcame the absence of a number of key players to beat Roma 2-0 in the fevered atmosphere of the Stadio Olimpico yesterday morning (Singapore time) and claim a place in the knockout stages that seemed unlikely just a fortnight ago.
Pellegrini's men took just two points from their opening four games in the competition but then revived hopes with a stunning win over Bayern Munich, and then similarly stunned the Italian side yesterday morning.
Samir Nasri and Pablo Zabaleta struck in the second half, as City climbed above both Roma and CSKA Moscow in Group E.
Pellegrini (above) said: "It is not relief because we always trusted - especially after we beat Bayern Munich - that we would have a lot of chances to qualify here.
"I am very happy because we won against a very difficult team in a difficult stadium. We played very well from the beginning of the game."
City's last two performances have been in marked contrast to how they began the competition.
It seemed they were heading for a third group-stage exit in four seasons after losing to CSKA at home last month and the knives started to come out for Pellegrini.
His team have gone on to defy the critics, but Pellegrini insisted he was not trying to send out any message and immediately turned attention back to domestic matters.
He said: "We recovered and we are playing in exactly the same way in the Champions League as in the Premier League and you can see that in the last two games against Bayern and Roma.
"We are not trying to send any kind of message to anybody. We are just happy because we qualified for the next stage. That was our target.
"But, from tomorrow morning, we must forget about the Champions League because we do not have to play until February.
"We now have four games this month in the Premier League that are so important, more than the Champions League.
"Every competition is important but, in England, the Premier League is more important than the Champions League.
"We must focus our mind now on trying to beat Leicester on Saturday."
City were without injured captain Vincent Kompany and striker Sergio Aguero, while Yaya Toure was suspended. David Silva, on his return from a knee injury, came off the bench only for the final 23 minutes.
Pellegrini said: "Maybe if we had not qualified for the next round, it would be easy for me to say we played without all these important players - Kompany, Yaya, Silva and Aguero.
"But I never complain about that. I have a lot of trust in this squad and maybe this squad deserve more credit.
"People say we are just 'Kun' (Aguero). Kun is a very important player - like Cristiano (Ronaldo) in Madrid or (Lionel) Messi in Barcelona - but I always say this team are not just one player and we demonstrated that." - PA Sport.