Man City and the Champions League – the story so far

December 12, 2013 in Europe, Premier League by Emma Lucy Whitney

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Manuel Pellegrini achieved the task he was brought to East Manchester to do with two games to spare, after City’s stonking 5-2 victory over CSKA Moscow at the beginning of last month. With qualification assured, City went into Tuesday’s game against the reigning Champions of Europe with the weight temporarily off their shoulders; here was a chance to avenge Bayern’s 3-1 victory over the Blues at the Etihad back in October, and to avoid utter humiliation at the hands of the best team in the world before Saturday’s crunch Premier League tie against Arsenal. Few people would have expected City to emerge victorious from the Allianz, especially after they got off to a nightmare start, conceding twice inside fifteen minutes. That City managed to turn around such a deficit against opposition of the calibre of Bayern really says something about how far the club has come in recent times; only two years ago, lest we forget, the same stadium was witness to Tevez’s spat with Mancini. The Blues should rightly be applauded for last night’s victory, a result that suggests that they have finally arrived on the European stage. But just how good have City actually been in the group stages of the Champions League this season, and how far can they realistically go in the greatest club competition of them all?

Manchester City Champions League Draw

City’s first Group D match (their best group in the Champions League so far, Bayern Munich notwithstanding) took place way back on 17th September, and resulted in an impressive 3-0 away victory for the Blues against Viktoria Plzen in the Czech Republic. After a lacklustre first half, things got cracking for City in the second 45, with star performer Aguero setting up Dzeko for the first, before Yaya Toure scored a magnificient second, and Kun himself getting his goal not long after. Before the Blues could get too ahead of themselves, however, they had the prospect of facing Bayern at the Etihad in their next match. Despite thrashing rivals Manchester United in the Premier League and Wigan Athletic in the Capital One Cup in their previous matches on home turf, City capitulated to the German and European Champions and were completely outclassed in a 3-1 defeat.

The last thing City probably felt like doing after their humbling at the feet of Bayern Munich was travelling to a wintry Russia for a match against CSKA Moscow. Worries about the quality of the pitch dominated the headlines before kick-off, and worries about racist chanting directed towards Toure dominated after it, but the Blues earned themselves a hard-fought victory against a side capable of quality football. Aguero almost single-handedly led the fight back, equalising straight away after CSKA had gone ahead through Tosic on 32 minutes.  Ten minutes later, Aguero had scored again; the Blues went in 2-1 ahead at half time, and hung on throughout the second 45, thanks in no small part to Musa’s goal being disallowed and Honda being denied in the dying seconds by a fantastic save from Hart.

The return leg of this fixture saw the Blues resting on six points and knowing that a victory would all but guarantee them a place in the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time. Two goals from Aguero, including a penalty and a strike from Negredo put City 3-0 up after just 30 minutes, but a goal from Doumbia meant the Blues went in 3-1 up at halftime. Five minutes after the restart, Negredo had grabbed his second, and although Doumbia scored again from the spot, Negredo got his hattrick and City emerged worthy 5-2 winners. Aguero, Negredo, Silva and Nasri were all fantastic in the match, which not only saw some of the most sublime attacking football ever played at the Etihad, but ensured that the Blues did get through to the next stage of the Champions League for the first time in their history.

City’s last Group match at home was against supposed whipping boys Plzen, but the Czech team really gave the Blues a game at the Etihad at the end of last month. Aguero tucked away another pen after half an hour, only for Horava to equalise spectacularly before the break. A great volleyed shot by the excellent Nasri restored City’s lead after 65 minutes, but once again Plzen equalised, this time through Tecl. Substitute Negredo ensured City went ahead for the third time with just over ten minutes left, toe-poking Navas’ superb cross home. Finally Dzeko got the fourth courtesy of a fine header just before the 90 was out. Everything was set up for the so-called ‘dead rubber’ against Bayern at the Allianz; with the task of scoring at least three goals past the European Champions deemed improbable by all, the most City could hope for was damage limitation and coming out of Germany able to hold their heads up high. Wasn’t it?

Dzeko Man City Bayern Munich Champions League

City got off to the worst possible start against their opponents at the Allianz on Tuesday night, shipping two early goals from Muller and Gotze to find themselves 2-0 down with only 12 minutes played. The match was always going to be a tall order against such opposition, and with key City players missing, the Blues could well have been on the end of a drubbing. Haphazard defending from Kolarov and Lescott cost City, but somehow the Blues got themselves back into the game, thanks in no small part to the introduction of Zabaleta after 16 mins, coming on for the injured Richards. The Argentine defender, together with Milner and Silva, forced City into actually playing, and from then on in things started to happen.

The impressive Milner had a hand in all three of City’s goals, nodding Navas’ cross back across the six-yard box for an alert Silva to put away after 28 minutes. Remarkably, City emerged after half-time the better side, and whereas Bayern began to get sloppy and frustrated, City grew braver and cuter. After Milner was tripped by Dante in the box with an hour gone, skipper Kolarov converted City’s third penalty of the campaign, and man of the match Milner struck a sumptuous winning goal from another Navas cross three minutes later. City were in dreamland; the travelling fans were singing their hearts out, and the Blues came mightily close to snatching the top spot of Group D from Bayern when Neuer’s leg prevented Negredo getting the crucial fourth goal. Tuesday 10th December will live long in the collective City memory, and it just goes to show that the Blues, once they actually play and concentrate, are capable of beating anyone.

FOOTBALL : Bayern Munich vs Manchester City - Ligue des Champions - 10/12/ 2013

All in all, Pellegrini’s first Champions League campaign at the helm of Manchester City has been a roaring success. No doubt if the Blues go down to Real Madrid or PSG in the Round of 16, he’ll be lambasted by certain sections of the media for not putting Aguero on against Munich when City were searching for their fourth, but this would be unfair in the extreme; the Chilean has achieved a lot already, and his City side play Champions League football with much more flair, finesse and assurance than Mancini’s City of the past few seasons. The fact that Pellegrini has almost always been unable to call on his strongest squad, thanks to a run of injuries, makes City’s Champions League exploits thus far seem even more impressive. The Blue half of Manchester will await Monday’s draw with bated breath, but I believe City finally proved last night that they are a match for any team. As for getting to the quarter-finals and beyond, there is so much luck involved in competitions like this, it’s almost impossible to predict, but Pellegrini took Villarreal to a Champions League semi-final, so why can’t he do the same with one of the best squads in the world? After all, his side have just beaten the champions of Europe in their own backyard. If I were a City fan – and I am – I’d say this. Messi, Zlatan, Ronaldo? Bring ‘em on!