On Tuesday night there will be a matchup that ten years ago you would only have seen had you had Tonton Zola Moukoko playing especially well for you on Championship Manager. Manchester City, fourteen years ago a languishing club in the third tier of English football, attracting a home crowd of 3,000 against Mansfield in the Auto Windscreens Shield (they lost that game), are now champions of England and set to take on Real Madrid in the first match of the Champions League group stage at the mighty Santiago Bernabeu.
Of course, this particular rags to riches story doesn’t come from grit, hard work, determination or having Brian Clough as manager. It comes largely from barrels of oil, generating the sort of wealth that would make even the Abramovich’s of this world green with envy.
It’s this wealth that saw a team progress from scoring ten goals at home in a season, having Darius Vassell leading the line up front, being as exciting to watch as a fish finger defrost to having Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli, Carlos Tevez scoring goal after goal.
Where a few years ago they had to use goalkeeper David James as an emergency striker from the substitutes’ bench due to a lack of replacements, they can now bring on a £25m player in Edin Dzeko. From having all trophies stuffed into a dusty cupboard due to a lack of anything to put in it, they now have a gleaming trophy case, ready and waiting for more silverware to fill it.
City’s experiences in European football in the last few years though haven’t been encouraging. They went out in the group stage last year with Carlos Tevez refusing to come on as a substitute in a defeat to Bayern Munich. In their two Europa League campaigns before that they went out disappointingly to Dynamo Kiev and Hamburg. Success in the league has led to their disappointing European sojourns largely being forgotten. With a league title under their belt now fans, pundits and the owners may not be so forgiving.
This won’t please Roberto Mancini, who throughout his managerial has had a rather baffling string of appalling results in Europe. As manager of Inter Milan he was consistently leading his side to league success but succumbing in the early knockout rounds of the Champions League. He was sacked by Inter largely due to the club wanting success in Europe and deciding Mancini wasn’t up to bringing that success. Their subsequent Champions League triumph under Jose Mourinho proved them right.
It’s hard to explain why in Europe, Mancini’s sides seem to do so poorly. In cup competitions as a manager he’s won four Coppa Italia’s and the FA Cup in 2011 which truly got City up and running as a top level club.
In the big games against the higher quality opposition City have done well. Last season they beat Man United 6-1 at Old Trafford but only got one point from two games against Napoli, a good side but no world beaters. It’s as if Mancini’s the equivalent of a golfer who can’t stop winning on the regular tour but freezes in the majors.
The Man City players also have plenty of European experience, so that can’t be used as an excuse for City’s poor European displays. Yaya Toure won the Champions League with Barcelona (playing at centre-back in the final), Sergio Aguero won the Europa League with Atletico Madrid, Tevez won the Champions League with United and all of their players have played internationally or in the Europa League.
They’re hardly young novices going abroad with a tin of baked beans and sandwiches from mum. These are experienced internationals who know how to win games, in Europe and domestically. But Inter had experienced players who were proven winners, and they never performed in Europe until Jose Mourinho took charge.
Another slight against Mancini, along with his dismal European record as a coach is the fact he’s won lots of league titles but with the best teams. Inter won titles under his stewardship when Juventus were being stripped of titles and demoted to Serie B for tapping up referees and AC Milan were the only side to provide stern opposition.
At City he’s had an unlimited transfer budget and in Tevez, Aguero, Balotelli, Nasri, Dzeko and others the best attack in the league. Even then he was a couple of minutes from spectacularly messing up the fairly simple task of beating relegation threatened Queens Park Rangers. Compare the United and City teams from last season and City should never have needed two injury time goals in the last match of the season to win the title.
The jury’s still out on Mancini, and he won’t be helped by the tough draw City have in this year’s group stage. Where last year they faced a top side in Bayern and a very good one in Napoli, this year they face another top side Real Madrid, another good side in Borussia Dortmund and a promising team in Ajax who will surely work the oracle of improving on Villarreal’s total of 0 points in City’s group last season.
There are reasons to be optimistic if you support City. Madrid have had by their standards a diabolical start to La Liga with only four points from four games. We’re used to Madrid accruing wins with the efficiency of the old secret police controlled sides in communist Eastern Europe, not losing matches to Getafe and Sevilla.
This could go two ways. It could mean that when City play Madrid on Tuesday, Jose Mourinho will have done his best version of Al Pacino’s Any Given Sunday speech, have the Madrid team pumped beyond comprehension and they’ll stride out onto the lush Bernabeu turf intent on battering City into submission.
Or they could lack confidence, continue play hesitantly and stutter to a poor performance and a bad result. You would still expect them to qualify comfortably from the group but if their league form extends into Europe, City and Dortmund especially may fancy their chances against them.
Dortmund are still an unknown quantity in European competition. They’ve won the Bundesliga the last two seasons, convincingly beating Bayern both seasons in the process. They lost Shinji Kagawa over the summer but in Marco Reus have an excellent replacement.
But in the Champions League last year they were appalling, winning only game from six in a group which contained Arsenal, Marseille and Olympiacos. A tricky group but not a particularly difficult one, especially considering that Marseille eventually finished 10th in Ligue 1 and Arsenal had a dire start to the season.
They didn’t even finish 3rd in the group to qualify for the Europa League knockout rounds, a very poor showing given that Bayern, who they beat in the league and in the German Cup went on to reach the final. Unlike City, their players and coach do lack experience in Europe and they seemed to be unsure how to adapt their aggressive, pressing style to European sides more adept at picking holes in their defence than teams back home. With a year of European experience you’d expect them to be more potent opposition this time round.
Ajax are now the footballing version of a vinyl record. Wonderful back in the day, and today a classier, cheaper, hip alternative to the monied monoliths that dominate. But like a vinyl record, Ajax may be a hip team to support because of their history of success, beautiful football and superb youth setup but they’re not particularly successful and simply don’t have the money and resources to seriously compete with the big boys. You would expect them to be the group whipping boys, though they will be tricky opposition who will not go down lightly.
City are plainly good enough and talented enough to have a long Champions League run. Winning the Premiership proves that. With more of a focus on Europe after setting their sights almost solely on the league last season, City should do better in Europe this season.
They should be confident about beating Ajax, but Madrid are opposition of the highest calibre while City at times struggled last year against sides like Swansea that pressed them high up the pitch, something Dortmund in particular will do to them ferociously. They’ll have to devise ways to cope with this if they are to make the knockout rounds.
But when Inter were dominating domestically and specially targeted European success under Mancini, they never went further than the quarter-finals. He’ll have to conquer the strange hoodoo that seems to lie over him when his teams play in Europe if City are to have any sort of success in the Champions League this season.