Ahead of kick-off against Dynamo Kiev, Manchester City fans welcomed club great Colin Bell on to the Etihad Stadium turf.
Widely regarded as the finest player in City history, the gesture was to mark the 50th anniversary of former England midfielder Bell signing for the club, while giving a nod to the past on the night Manchester’s blue half broke new ground by reaching the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time.
However, Bell’s late career was ravaged by a serious knee problem and there was an uncomfortable parallel in the second leg of the last-16 tie as one of City’s modern heroes was hit by his own injury curse once again.
Pursued by Kiev winger Oleg Gusev in the fifth minute, home captain Vincent Kompany grimaced, turned and put the ball out of play before falling to the turf.
The Belgium international looked on in crestfallen resignation. Surely, it was that calf again.
Bell’s enduring nightmare began when a tackle from Manchester United defender Martin Buchan left him with ligament, cartilage and muscular damage to his right knee in a November 1975 League Cup tie. He was 29 and would not play again for more than two years.
Kompany is also 29 and, although his woes are not so dramatic, there is a sense that his prime years are slipping away.
If the suspected diagnosis of a calf injury is confirmed, it will be the fourth time that the same problem has left the defender stricken this season, having afflicted him on and off since 2012.
An interview inside Tuesday’s matchday programme, one that seemed to tempt fate, featured Kompany reflecting on his maddeningly disjointed season.
“It can be very difficult when you know you are missing out on something that can be so good,” he said. “But I am philosophical. Setbacks are part of life and I like to think that my nature means I can rise to any challenge.”
It will take every last drop of this mental toughness to lift Kompany, who is also set to skipper a much-fancied Belgium at Euro 2016, but the immediate concern for outgoing City manager Manuel Pellegrini are the band of players remaining who so often appear rudderless without their on-field leader.
City sleepwalked through the remainder of a dour first half, with an similarly uninspired Kiev unable to capitalise on a side seemingly fully aware of their lame duck status without Kompany.
Premier League leaders Leicester City would be unlikely to find themselves 12 points better off than Pellegrini’s men in fourth had his defensive lynchpin managed to string a sustained run of games together.
A Kompany helmed City have won eight and lost two in his 13 league appearances this term – a record that slips badly to seven wins and six defeats in the 16 matches he has been among the spectators.
This throws up the once unfathomably possibility, on the night they moved into the Champions League last eight, that City will find themselves absent from next season’s competition altogether.
If West Ham beat Chelsea on Saturday, City would start Sunday’s derby against Manchester United in fifth place. They could be without Kompany’s first-choice partner Nicolas Otamendi – another injury victim on Tuesday.
A defeat would leave them a point above United and with a resurgent Liverpool breathing down their necks. One win from the past five top-flight matches suggests they do not have the platform of confidence to recover from such a setback.
Pellegrini was supposed to be keeping the seat warm for Pep Guardiola’s much trumpeted close-season arrival from Bayern Munich, laying a seamless transition on a plate.
The reality is a possible campaign out in the cold and gruelling European footballing backwaters of the Europa League, with an inspirational captain unable to trust his body.
Can Pep do it on a cold Thursday night in Qarabag? It is a ridiculous question to which the mercurial coach might have to find an answer.
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