When Manchester City were sensationally taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group in September 2008, it was clear to anyone around the club with the remotest foothold in reality that before the Blues could even begin to think about being taken seriously as an elite club, they would first have to gain qualification to the UEFA Champions League.
It took City three years and a hell of a lot of money to reach this first milestone on the road to greatness, but when the famous strains of the official Champions League anthem blared out around the Etihad Stadium for the first time in 2011, to many supporters it felt like a dream had been realised and everyone would live happily ever after. In reality, City’s Champions League experiences in the four years that followed have been more like one of Aesop’s Fables than any fairytale.
In 2011, City’s debut season in the Champions League, they finished third in a “Group of Death” containing Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal despite amassing a respectable 11 points from six matches. The following year City were drawn against Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax in the group stage and finished bottom of the group without managing even a solitary victory along the way. In 2013/14 City qualified comfortably from a group containing Bayern Munich (again), CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzeň but crashed out when they faced Barcelona in the last 16 of the competition. Last season, City’s group stage featured matches against Bayern Munich (again), CSKA Moscow (again) and Roma and contained more twists and turns than the entirety of M. Night Shymalan’s opus. City scraped through by the skin of their teeth but were again slapped back into place when they were beaten by Barcelona (again) in the last 16.
There have been many words written about and many excuses given for City’s failings in Europe’s premier competition so far. Though the club undoubtedly now dines at Europe’s top table, they have been made to feel far from welcome to supper and many City fans perhaps justifiably bear the perception that European football’s governing body is on a crusade to prevent the club from ever rising above the level of continental also-rans. If it isn’t Financial Fair Play regulations seemingly aimed solely at keeping clubs like City in their place, it’s incidents like last season’s slap in the face whereby a small number of CSKA Moscow fans were allowed into a match which was supposed to have been played behind closed doors after the home supporters were found guilty of racially abusing Yaya Touré in the previous season’s fixture.
And that’s before we even get started on a seeding system which is so confusing it makes even the least paranoid of City’s fan-base wonder whether the whole competition isn’t just a massive fix. Of course, the seeding rules were adjusted this season in order to supposedly give greater advantage to clubs like City whose domestic league position last year was more favourable than their European co-efficient status. However, City fans could be forgiven for wondering what exactly had changed when Thursday evening’s draw for the 2015 group stage landed them in a group with last season’s finalists Juventus, last season’s Europa League winners Sevilla and Borussia Mönchengladbach – arguably a much more difficult task than that which has been presented to England’s other representatives in the competition this year.
City’s poor showing in the Champions League coupled with UEFA’s perceived lack of warmth towards the club has resulted in a great deal of disillusionment amongst the club’s faithful with poor attendances and a general lack of enthusiasm being hallmarks of the most recent campaigns. But though there is an element of truth behind City’s hard luck story, the elephant in the room is that in four seasons of Champions League football, City simply haven’t been anywhere near good enough and that has to change.
If there’s one characteristic which has defined City’s experiences in the competition so far it’s naivety. Whether that’s come in the form of Manuel Pellegrini picking Fernando as part of the two-man midfield which started against Barcelona in last season’s last 16 first leg, or the shocking concession of control in games his predecessor seemingly didn’t know how to avoid, it has been frustrating and inexcusable. Similarly, inexperience amongst City’s players was a fairly reasonable exoneration in the first Champions League season, but it didn’t really wash then and certainly doesn’t anymore.
City have been handed testing draws in every year they’ve featured in the Champions League, of that there is no doubt, but who honestly thought they’d become champions of Europe without having to overcome a few very good teams along the way? This year will again see them pitted against some excellent and illustrious opponents, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that, on paper at least, City are the best team in their group and their success or their failure will all depend on them.
The Blues have significantly bolstered their ranks with some terrific signings this summer and the new default 4-3-3 formation which is already paying dividends in the Premier League will hopefully at least make them much harder to beat in the Champions League. Manager Manuel Pellegrini has most likely just bought himself one more pint in the last chance saloon and he may never again get the opportunity to prove his credentials as the cunning, top level tactician he was billed as when City appointed him.
If you expect little from City you’re rarely disappointed but even the most pessimistic of supporters must be more-than-hoping that 2015/2016 will be the year the club finally announces itself on European football’s biggest stage. Winning the competition may well still be a bridge too far this season, but a display of marked improvement will be enough to satisfy most of us for the time being.
City are more than capable of doing what they’ve never done before in the Champions League and winning their group this season, and if they do they should theoretically be presented with a more manageable challenge in the last 16. If they get past that stage they will not only have gone further than they’ve ever gone before but who knows? They could very well surprise us all and win the whole lot.
They may have gatecrashed UEFA’s dinner party in 2011, but four years have passed and it’s time for City to show the world they are now more than just the spectre at the feast. There can be no excuses anymore.
Written by Dan Burke