Manchester City begin their latest Champions League group campaign on Tuesday night with a trip to the Czech Republic, and after failing to make it out of the group stages for two years running, the time for excuses is now over.
The chief complaint from those affiliated with the club over the last two years has been that being put in each instalment’s ‘group of death’, while remaining so ‘inexperienced’ when it comes to life in the Champions League, was too much for them to overcome.
I didn’t particularly agree with that self-appraisal at the time. For me, the team – full of big-name stars who have played at the highest level elsewhere – was not lacking the relevant experience.
The problem was more likely that their manager at the time, Roberto Mancini, lacked the knowledge of the tournament to successfully navigate through it.
Now they have Manuel Pellegrini in charge, I expect a better run from City this time around. More importantly, with Viktoria Plzen and CSKA Moscow in the group, they cannot afford not to make it to the knockout stages.
Yes, defending champions Bayern Munich are there too, but if City are wise they will place very little emphasis on the result of those two fixtures.
Of course, the fans would love to see their team beat the treble-winners – and they won 2-0 at home to them in 2011-12 – but what matters is that they put everything they have into taking all 12 points from Plzen and CSKA.
Some think topping the group is important. I think the last few seasons have proven that both pots for the last-16 have ties you want to avoid, so it doesn’t matter. It’s pot luck either way. City just need to be in one of them come December, as their top priority of the entire season.
And I think Pellegrini realises that, judging by the squad he lined up for the Stoke game. He and the board look to be on the same page about the club’s European fortunes. And if he can get a side like Malaga on the cusp of the last four, the sky is the limit with this pool of talent.
City’s neighbours Manchester United also get up and running on Tuesday with a group, on paper, they should be winning, let alone qualifying from.
But it won’t be that simple for them, I fear. Firstly, their group of Bayer Leverkusen, Real Sociedad and Shakhtar Donetsk may not be the group of death, but there are no whipping boys either.
Sociedad lack experience at this level and have lost Asier Illarramendi to Real Madrid, but remain a well-oiled side who are starting to find their feet in Spain, four games in.
Donetsk may have lost a number of star players, but have recruited well in response – including snapping up former Arsenal target Bernard – and proved last season that they can cut even a top Premier League side to ribbons.
Leverkusen, who visit Old Trafford in the first game, are the real dark horses of the competition for me. Only Bayern and Borussia Dortmund are stronger than them in Germany, they have a strong Champions League lineage and the likes of Stefan Kiessling and Sidney Sam have been in fine form. With Sami Hyypia in sole charge now, they are not incapable of a run as far as the last eight or semi-finals.
Considering the uncertainty over United post-Alex Ferguson, and the fact that David Moyes, like Mancini at City, probably doesn’t have the strongest grasp on the nuances of the tournament, there is a very real risk that the Red Devils could be the first big casualty of this season’s European crusade.
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