Manchester City get the chance to finally – definitively – emerge from the shadow of their cross-town Red rivals as this year’s UEFA Champions League commences. They’ll do so with a team which, while not having ever competed in the the Champions’ League as a unit, possesses a significant amount of top-flight continental experience. United, of course, have made it to three of the past four Champions’ League finals for one win and two losses.
For City, gone are second-tier superstars like Roque Santa Cruz, Emanuel Adebayor and Jo, replaced by true World’s best candidates Sergio “Kun” Aguero and Samir Nasri. The combination of this season’s biggest buy with last season’s (Edin Dzeko) has become the Naomi Campbell of Premier League forward tandems – terrifyingly beautiful. Indeed, they have been so good so far that Tevez, the Premiership’s equal top-scorer last season, has been restricted to two appearances. Nasri has also been very impressive in his short stay at Eastlands. There have been questions as to Mancini’s willingness to attack, but City’s results this year exhibit newfound creative zest, so far putting such allegations to rest.
Ferguson’s United, version 7.2, were constructed to compete with Barcelona after their dismantling at the feet of the Catalans in last season’s Champions’ League final. An ageing one-club defence was replenished by acquiring Phil Jones of Blackburn Rovers and promoting Chris Smalling. England winger Ashley Young arrived from Villa and Edwin van der Sar begat twenty year-old Spaniard David De Gea. Red Devil fans salivated at the prospect of Paul Scholes being replaced by Luka Modric, Samir Nasri or Wesley Sneijder; but the Ginger One’s replacement came from within as Tom Cleverley (injured on Saturday) and Anderson stepped up to claim starting berths. 18 goals in four EPL matches essentially without using Fletcher, Valencia and Berbatov is awe-inspiring.
As things stand, the two Manchester sides are among the top five sides in most Champions League odds, with United 3rd favourites and City 5th. For a Champions League debutant, it’s a testament to their player recruitment strategy that they are ranked so high. Only Barcelona (1), Madrid (2) and Chelsea (4) seemingly stand in their way.
City v United
On paper – and League form so far – the two squads are amongst the strongest in the competition. Both teams have Champions’ League experience in spades with United , naturally, possessing more, boosted by the individual totals sported by Rio Ferdinand, Parice Evra and Methuselah Ryan Giggs. The City player with the most UCL experience are Arsenal expats Kolo Toure and Gael Clichy as well as Nigel de Jong.
One’s strength is the other’s weakness – Joe Hart is the best goalkeeper in England; David De Gea has provided more questions than answers in his short tenure as United’s number one. The youngster will eventually become an outstanding goalkeeper but has shown vulnerability to aerial assault and appears to occasionally regress into his shell, a characteristic unhelped by his unfamiliarity with English.
As you cross Manchester in the opposite direction, the reverse is true. With Joleon Lescott and Kolo Toure’s presence at centre-back, City’s defence has rarely looked totally cohesive against top-class opposition. If last seasons’ Blues were accused of risking a possible victory for a certain draw, they have rectified this in their acquisition of willo-the-wisp Nasri, whose exploits in the Champions League last season against Porto (amongst others) were matched by his City debut against Spurs.
City have earned themselves the harder group. United might be apprehensive about one match only – away at Benfica on Wednesday, perhaps the first Champions’ League test for their much-vaunted Backline of the Future. The rest of their group comprises FC Basel of Switzerland and Romania’s Otelul Galati, whose stadium isn’t up to UEFA standards, so will play their home games at Bucharest’s National Stadium.
The blue half of Manchester will look at all their away ties with unease: trips to Villarreal, Napoli and 2010 Champions’ League finalists Bayern Munich litter their upcoming schedule. With each side boasting enviable forward talent, it would be no surprise if the group stage supplies a surfeit of goals. Not only will this tough group affect the Citizens’ chances of a successful campaign, but could have a profound impact on their Premier League results. Even though the travel involved is relatively minor, City will play away from home in the Premiership after each of their Champions’ League matches, including trips to Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and Anfield.
How Far Will City Go?
After a exciting, rollercoaster and often amusing start to life in Europe’s elite, the question that will define City’s initial Champions’ League campaign no longer concerns their talent, attitudes, defensive mindset or even Champions’ League experience. The largest question looms over the centre of their defence: will – or can – two of Lescott, Kompany and Kolo Toure form a solid central defensive partnership able to repel the best attacks in Europe?
United’s question is the same as it was six months ago: if De Gea is the anointed one, how will such a young man deal with both expectations and the aerial bombardment he’s certain to receive at the hands of burly centre forwards. No one doubts his shot-stopping ability (except when Shane Long is concerned), but his command of area. A clean sheet in Saturday’s match against Kevin Davies’ Bolton Wanderers will have helped.
It’s likely that both clubs will get through their respective groups, though City’s seeding and draw has done them no favours. It is only right, though, that both teams should progress having spent significantly on their squads over past years. Anything less than a return to the last four would be seen as a failure by Fergie and his crew at Old Trafford. At Eastlands, confidence is high that they can replicate such achievements themselves – and they just might.