Manchester City concluded one of the great Champions League Houdini acts on Wednesday as they qualified for the knockout stages with goals from Samir Nasri and Pablo Zabaleta sinking Roma 2-0 to eliminate the Italians at the Stadio Olimpico.
The Frenchman’s 60th-minute thunderbolt, before he laid on a second for the Argentine in the 86th minute, ensured the English champions did not suffer another frustrating early exit in Group E.
City’s great escape into the last 16 seemed unthinkable when they trailed in their penultimate game at home to Bayern Munich with just five minutes remaining before Sergio Aguero completed his famous hat-trick.
Victory or a score draw offered City’s most realistic chance of progressing from the group behind Bayern Munich in a fevered atmosphere in Rome and even without their injured totem Aguero, Manuel Pellegrini’s men produced a performance full of resolve.
Nasri, given too much space on the edge of the box, hammered a glorious 20-metre shot which cannoned off the post and into the net, and City defended manfully before Nasri freed the rampaging Zabaleta to score his first Champions League goal.
“People wrote us off without our key players (like Aguero and Vincent Kompany) but we’re a strong unit, we believed in what we could do,” City keeper Joe Hart told Sky Sports.
“You don’t win two Premier League titles in three years easily. We have resolve, character and fantastic players. Add that together and you’ve got a chance.”
With various permutations at the start of the night leaving it possible for Roma, City or CSKA Moscow to join Bayern in the last 16, the game effectively became an Anglo-Italian shootout once news of Bayern’s early lead over the Russians filtered through.
The English champions had their moments in the first half, especially when James Milner twice forced sharp saves from Morgan De Sanctis.
Hart then stepped up with some crucial stops from the moment he spread himself to block Jose Holebas’s fifth minute shot from point-blank range.
As the hour mark approached, Roma seemed to be running out of ideas when the in-form Nasri celebrated his 50th appearance in the competition with a marvellous goal.
Roma, by now needing to score twice, came closest when Hart made another crucial intervention to push Kostas Manolas’s header on to the post and Martin Demichelis blocked a shot on the line before Zabaleta calmed City nerves.
Roma had the minor consolation of qualifying for the Europa League, ahead of CSKA Moscow who lost 3-0 at Bayern in their final group match.
Ruthless Chelsea end Sporting hopes
Chelsea gave a helping hand to a former hero on Wednesday by rounding off the Champions League group stage with a 3-1 victory over Sporting which sent the Portuguese side packing and opened the door for Schalke 04 to reach the last 16.
The English side finished comfortably clear at the top of Group G after a Cesc Fabregas penalty and a rasping strike from Andre Schuerrle set them on their way and John Obi Mikel rounded off the scoring after Jonathan Silva had given Sporting hope.
The result proved a boon to Chelsea’s former Champions League-winning coach Roberto Di Matteo whose Schalke side clinched the runners-up spot after a 1-0 win over Maribor that left them on eight points, one clear of Sporting.
Chelsea, who dominated Wednesday’s match, finished with 14 points, having won four of their six group games.
Chelsea’s place in the last 16 was assured long before kickoff, as was their status as group winners, after they thrashed Schalke 5-0 in their last game.
But after their unbeaten start to the season was halted in a Premier League defeat at Newcastle United on Saturday, there was no question of Jose Mourinho taking it easy or picking an entirely second-string side.
With Nemanja Matic restored to midfield alongside Fabregas and Diego Costa leading the line, Chelsea enjoyed an immediate stranglehold on possession and were ahead after just eight minutes.
Fullback Filipe Luis was brought down by Sporting’s Ricardo Esgaio and Fabregas stepped up to fire his penalty straight down the middle and into the net.
The one-way traffic continued and the hosts doubled the lead eight minutes later when Schuerrle found the bottom corner with a fierce drive from the edge of the area having been teed up by Matic.
The Portuguese team perked up in the second half and grabbed a goal back through Silva who fired home from the edge of the area, but hopes of a revival were dashed by Mikel’s close-range finish.