Andy Mitten

Bernabeu cauldron awaits City

Andy Mitten

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Manchester may be a football capital, but the most successful team of them all didn't play a single game in the city in the '70s, '80s or '90s. Real Madrid played some epic games against United in the '50s and '60s, but while the Spaniards were consistent European performers, bans and less than spectacular league form meant that United and City were not.

They may have been beaten by Aberdeen, but Madrid seemed to be on another level to anything Manchester offered in the 80s. They had bigger stars, bigger crowds and a far bigger trophy cabinet. In 1994, Old Trafford held 44,600 - less than half the capacity of the Bernabéu. City in Europe? Don't laugh. United fans joked for years that Blues didn't need a passport because their team never played abroad.

When United began to dominate domestically and do better in Europe and the gap between Madrid et al closed, Reds would joke that they travelled to Turin when City went to Grimsby. When United - as treble winners - finally met Madrid in the '99-00 season, City were just out of England's third tier after a play off victory against Gillingham. City were still a world away from Madrid and while fans played up their credentials as 'The Manchester club', Continentals only thought of one  football club when the word 'Manchester' was mentioned.

Had you said to me growing up in Manchester that one day I'd be travelling to watch Manchester City - as English champions - play Real Madrid, I wouldn't have believed it. But here I am, writing on the superb AVE train zipping at 300kms across the arid Iberian countryside to the Spanish capital, with City about to meet Madrid for the first time. The significance has not escaped City fans who snapped up all 3,600 tickets in no time - there were over 10,000 enquiries. To them - and every football fan - watching your team play in the magnificent Bernabéu, with its six levels of seating towering steeply into the sky, is a life affirming moment.

Tonight's game is intriguing. Champions Madrid have suffered a poor start to the season, winning just one of their opening four matches. They sit 11th in the league, eight points behind a Barcelona side with a 100 per cent record. Barcelona begin their Champions League campaign under new boss Tito Vilanova at home to a Spartak Moscow managed by former Valencia boss Unai Emery tomorrow night.

Valencia, who finished third in Spain last season, start their campaign with a tough game in Bavaria against Bayern Munich, while Malaga, who finished fourth, play their first ever Champions League match tonight against Zenit St Petersburg, another 'new rich' club who have funded their substantial signings with money which originated from the sale of natural resources. The mood in Malaga is far more positive than six weeks ago when they appeared to be imploding, with players leaving, unpaid, and debts outstanding to other clubs.

Manchester City, funded by gas and oil rich Abu Dhabi, face a side whose coach has been highly critical of his players, whom he refused to call 'a team' after Saturday's 1-0 defeat at Sevilla. Mourinho has since relented and accepted some of the blame for his side's dire start to the season, saying: "I haven't been able to keep my players motivated and focused. I think that it is impossible to have a better squad-player relationship than the one I have."

The most important player relationship which needs mending is with star striker Cristiano Ronaldo, who refuses to elaborate on why he said he felt 'sad' at Madrid.

An 80,000 crowd in the Bernabéu expects a positive reaction and the Champions League will offer respite from domestic tribulations. They have reason to be optimistic: Madrid, beaten semi-finalists in the last two seasons, won all six Champions League matches in the Bernabéu last season, scoring 24 goals. Tottenham, the last English team in the Bernabéu, were beaten 4-0.

Madrid's European form was poor before Jose Mourinho arrived in 2010, though. For six successive seasons before Mourinho, Madrid had failed to go beyond the last 16 stage, nowhere near good enough for a team who've won a record nine European Cups and have been chasing the decima since 2002. Arch rivals Barcelona have won the competition three times since.

Madrid know all about City, whose latest signing Javi Garcia started his career at the club before joining Benfica in 2008.

Jose Mourinho and Roberto Mancini have never come head to head as coaches, though Mourinho replaced Roberto Mancini at Inter. Mancini led Inter to three successive Scudettos but his Inter side were poor in Europe. Mourinho rectified that by leading Inter to the Champions League in 2010 before immediately leaving to join Madrid. His first target was his former player Maicon. The Brazilian full back couldn't agree a deal and joined City this summer.

City's Sergio Aguero - known simply as 'Kun' in Spain - was a hero for Atletico Madrid but he wasn't on the winning side once in 11 Madrid derbies. David Silva is recognised as one of Spain's best players. The Canarian had two trials at the Bernabéu when he was 14, but Madrid considered him too small. His new City contract means he now earns more than any Madrid player aside from Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka. Pablo Zabaleta is also known to Madrid fans, having played in Spain with Espanyol, while Yaya Toure was with Barcelona.

For Madrid, Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa (both Liverpool), Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Essien (both Chelsea) and Luka Modric (Tottenham) have all played in the Premier League.

Despite Mancini's claims that City can win the competition, progress for his side will be qualification from the competition's toughest group which includes German champions Borussia Dortmund and Dutch champions Ajax. They can start by avoiding defeat tonight. A draw would be positive for City, unacceptable for Madrid.

Anyway, the train's pulling into Madrid Atocha and it's time I met up with some City supporting mates to tell them what it's like to watch their team in the Bernabéu. They won't thank me for it.

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