The Champions League group stages are upon us and as the seasoned veteran, English teams of the competition get ready to begin their quest for the ultimate prize in club football. For the second season running England has a debutant team; like Tottenham Hotspur last season, Manchester City are making their first appearance in the big boys league and after making a scintillating start in the Premier League they must be full of confidence. What is expected of them though and how far can they really go?
Manchester City’s Champions League debut will mark the moment the club arrive at Europe’s top table and will be part of the club’s challenge for four trophies this season. Chelsea’s manager Andre Villas-Boas has already been quoted as saying that he thinks they have the ‘drive and quality’ to succeed at the first attempt, while City’s football administrator Brian Marwood has said trips to Munich, Napoli and Villarreal are just reward for the fans who have followed the club through thick and thin before the investment and will be there long after it goes. Whether that was a dig at bandwagon fans, who knows but it certainly is an exciting time for them all.
We all know about their financial clout in the transfer market and the fact that Roberto Mancini must feel like he is playing a real version of Football Manger when identifying and landing his targets, but let’s look at the squad he has assembled and how he has formed it with a serious eye on making a real challenge for the Champions League trophy.
During the summer City purchased 4 main players, these being: Gael Clichy, Samir Nasir, Sergio Aguero and Owen Hargreaves. All 4, as well as being fantastic players, have massive Champions League experience. Hargreaves won’t be included in the group stages squad as he is building up his fitness but he will still be able to advise the others on how to deal with the pressure of it all.
These players add to the others who have already had experience of the competition with former clubs. Vincent Kompany whilst with Anderlect, Kolo Toure at Arsenal, his brother Yaya whilst at Barcelona, Nigel De Jong at Ajax and Hamburg, David Silva at Valencia, Mario Balotelli at Inter Milan, Carlos Tevez whilst at Manchester Utd and Edin Dzeko at Wolfsburg. As you can see, City may be new to the competition but the majority of their players aren’t with the spine of the team forming a solid base.
The rest of the squad also have experience of European competition from last year with City and with previous clubs. But for all the English players – Joe Hart, Micah Richards, Adam Johnson, James Milner and Gareth Barry, along with Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksander Kolarov it will be their debuts when they step out onto the Eithad Stadium pitch on Wednesday against Napoli. The one striking thing that is there for all to see is that every one of these players are internationals and used to playing at the highest level.
Roberto Mancini has been saying in the build up to their first match that they have got to the Champions League ahead of schedule but with the resources he has at his disposal, it seems that he is just trying to tactically dampen expectations. Even though Manchester City have probably landed the dreaded ‘Group of Death’, which also includes European heavy weights Bayern Munich as well as Spanish side Villarreal, I wouldn’t write them off firstly getting out of the group and then progressing into the latter stages. How far they get could very well depend on how they cope with the rigours of playing in 4 competitions this season and the pressure to be serious contenders in them all.
Are they better then Barcelona, Real Madrid and their arch rivals from across town Manchester Utd? In all honesty, no they aren’t yet. But with Sheikh Mansour’s money, passion and determination to be the best club team in the world behind them it might not be too long before you see one of their fantastic superstars lifting the UEFA Champions League aloft and fireworks going off with that goose-bump music surging in the background.