When the draw for this year’s Champions League was made and City found themselves in what some were calling a “group of death” with Juventus, Sevilla and Borussia Mönchengladbach, we’d all have been more than happy to settle for 12 points and qualification for the last 16 as group winners.
That said, Manuel Pellegrini and his players suffered two disappointing defeats and rode their luck many times along the way, meaning the question of whether serious progress has actually been made in the competition this year currently remains largely unanswered.
The Blues kicked off their campaign in September at home to reigning Italian champions and last year’s Champions League runners up Juventus. City went into the game off the back of five straight Premier League wins and clean sheets and made a positive start, with Raheem Sterling going close to opening the scoring early on.
City took the lead 10 minutes after half time when Vincent Kompany pressured Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini into scoring an own goal from a corner and should really have doubled their advantage when Sterling was unable to beat the excellent Gianluigi Buffon in a one-on-one situation not long later.
In the 71st minute, Joe Hart picked the ball out of his net for the first time this season after Mario Mandžukić capitalised on a lapse in concentration from Eliaquim Mangala and finished from close range. Things went from bad to worse for City in the 82nd minute when, with Kompany having been forced off with an injury, Álvaro Morata found space on the edge of the area and curled a beautiful left-footed strike past Hart and in off the post. City were unable to come up with an answer, the game finished 2-1 and many of us assumed we were in for another miserable European season.
The Champions League had previously been a competition in which good fortune seemed to evade City but when they travelled to Germany to take on Borussia Mönchengladbach in the second group match, they undoubtedly got a nice, big, overdue slice of luck.
The Blues had been on the receiving end of a 4-1 shellacking at White Hart Lane a few days previously and many of their problems were of their own making in this match with the home side carving City’s ramshackle defence open at will and forcing a number of top class saves from Joe Hart, including one from a penalty in the first half.
It was no surprise to see Mönchengladbach finally take the lead 10 minutes after half time but Pellegrini’s men responded well and levelled the scores 10 minutes later. Martín Demichelis’ header from a corner initially looked as though it had been cleared off the line and Nicolás Otamendi, who doesn’t look like the sort of man to take any chances, volleyed in the rebound anyway. Replays later showed that Demichelis’ header had in fact crossed the line, the goal was awarded to him and City were back in it.
It looked for all the world like the match would to end in a draw until, in injury time Sergio Agüero was brought down in the box after picking up a loose ball from a corner and City were awarded a penalty. The Argentine, who’d been in indifferent form and only had one goal to his name all season at that point, stepped up and coolly slotted the ball home, earning his team a big European away win and three vital points.
The back-to-back games against Sevilla on match days three and four had been pinpointed as the results City would live or die by in this group, and so it proved.
Los Rojiblancos visited the Etihad on the 21st of October and were the better of the two sides for much of the evening. The impressive Yevhen Konoplyanka gave them a deserved lead after half an hour of a game City were seriously struggling to get a foothold in.
However, the Blues again reacted well to going a goal down and in the 37th minute Wilfried Bony, deputising for the injured Agüero, bundled the ball over the line (the goal was later given as an own goal) at the other end to make it 1-1.
Despite Sevilla creating the better openings of the two teams thereafter, that was how the score stayed until Kevin De Bruyne received a pass on the break in injury time, cut in onto his left foot and finished superbly to give City a late and, you’d have to say, undeserved victory.
It’s no exaggeration to say City’s performance in the return fixture two weeks later was one of, if not the best of the season so far and without doubt their best ever in the Champions League. Manuel Pellegrini set his team up in a 4-3-3 formation and they were rampant from the first minute to the last with Fernandinho putting on a display of midfield domination and Raheem Sterling having what was probably his best game in a City shirt.
It was the Brazilian and the young Englishman who combined for the opening goal in the 7th minute with the latter finishing well after being played in by a wonderful pass from the former. Four minutes later, it was Fernandinho’s turn to get in on the action when he headed home from a rebounded shot to double his side’s advantage.
Even a 25th minute Sevilla goal did little to break City’s stride and 10 minutes later it was 3-1 and game over when Wilfried Bony slotted away a Jesús Navas cross.
City knew going into the game that a win would seal their earliest ever qualification to the second stage and in the end, the only disappointment was that the margin of victory wasn’t greater.
With qualification from the group secured, it was time to focus on doing something City had never managed before – winning the damn thing.
Four days after the humiliating 4-1 defeat at home to Liverpool, the Blues travelled to Turin to take on group leaders Juventus. It proved to be a frustrating night for the away side who never recovered from conceding an early goal and were left to rue a late Raheem Sterling miss from close range. City lost 1-0 and the threat of a second placed finish followed by a horror draw for the last 16 loomed large.
That was until, on Tuesday, Borussia Mönchengladbach came to town. City knew if they won and Juventus lost away at Sevilla they’d win Group D and the game got off to a perfect start when David Silva smashed one in at the near post in the 16th minute.
However, some calamitous defending coupled with the visitors’ hunger to qualify for the Europa League saw the game turn on its head and by the time the news filtered through in the second half that Juventus were trailing in Seville, City were 2-1 down and lacking in ideas.
Thankfully, the Blues were able to find some inspiration from somewhere and, in the last 10 minutes, a quick-fire double from Sterling plus a goal from Bony gave them an unexpected 4-2 victory and won them the group.
When all’s said and done, given City’s previous record in the Champions League, the mountainous list of injuries and their, at times, poor form domestically this season, you’d have to reflect upon the way the group stage panned out and call it a job well done. There have definitely been signs of progress and greater understanding of the competition this year, but there have equally been moments in which Manuel Pellegrini and his team seemed just as naïve as ever. To say City have finally “cracked” the Champions League, a conclusion many jumped to after the win in Seville, is a massive exaggeration.
Winning the group means the draw for the last 16 should be much kinder to City than it has been in previous seasons, but given their luck, don’t be surprised should they find themselves facing Paris Saint Germain rather than KAA Gent in February.
But if City are able to navigate a route to the uncharted waters that is the quarter final this year, who knows what could happen? They’re clearly still not at the level of Europe’s most elite clubs yet, but with the right tactics and a bit of luck, well, you just never know.
Stranger things have happened.
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Written by Dan Burke