Manchester City’s relationship with the Champions League has always looked a touch hollow. Despite the ambition of Sheikh Mansour and the board to establish the club among the continent’s traditional elite, City have cut an uneasy figure since their first appearance in the ‘modern’ Champions League in 2011. Four Champions League campaigns have yielded two group stage exits and two defeats in the Round of 16, albeit to Barcelona on both occasions. Given that City have twice entered to competition as Premier League champions, those results are underwhelming.
The sense of ennui has also spread to City fans. Group stage matches at Etihad have been poorly attended, much to the amusement of rival supporters. In truth, rather that scoffing at empty seats football fans of all stripes ought to be asking why people are unable to afford tickets to important games. City supporters lack a ‘narrative’ when it comes to European football and, from the outside at least, have seemed detached and indifferent to campaigns.
Manchester United and Liverpool fans have past successes in the European Cup to inspire them, and those glories remain a source of hope that their current sides can emulate the great teams of the past. Arsenal’s years of gallant failure in the competition and relative lack of European silverware means the Champions League retains its status as an ‘Everest’ to be climbed. It was much the same for Chelsea until 2012, following a cluster of semi-final defeats and the loss to Manchester United on penalties in the 2008 final. For City fans, the competition is neither one nor the other; they don’t have an illustrious history in the competition to try and emulate nor have they experienced enough failures to make winning the Champions League a burning ambition.
At the time of writing however, Manchester City have just topped a difficult group containing Juventus and Sevilla. This is a praiseworthy achievement, especially when viewed in the context of English teams’ recent European performances. Praise always seems slow to come Manchester City’s way though. Success, such as winning the Premier League title, is treated as no more than their due because of the club’s wealth. Although they remain favourites to win the Premier League, I believe there have been signs of a change in priority this season from Manuel Pellegrini and the club. Winning the Champions League seems to be City’s primary target this season, even though it seems an ambitious one.
The first indicator of this shift in outlook has been Pellegrini’s team selection. Prior to Manchester City’s trip to Borussia Monchengladbach on ‘Matchday Two’, a crucial match due to City’s loss to Juventus in their opening game, they faced Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. Pellegrini left Joe Hart on the bench in order to give him physical and mental rest. City lost 4-1, and Hart duly returned to the starting line-up for the game in Germany. Injuries have restricted Pellegrini’s ability to rotate recently, but City’s Premier League results prior to European games seem to suggest that their focus may lay elsewhere.
Before City’s two games against Monchengladbach, they lost away at Spurs and 2-0 at Stoke. Prior to the two games against Juventus, they won 1-0 away at Crystal Palace via a last minute winner and lost 4-1 at home to Liverpool. Before their two matches against Sevilla, they narrowly defeated Norwich City 2-1 at home though they brushed Bournemouth aside in a 5-1 win prior to their first game against Sevilla at the Etihad. Mixed results after European excursions are not unknown, but such a mixture of results before European matches is an interesting trend.
All of which will give City’s title rivals hope that the spectre of Champions League football will continue to distract City and disrupt their League form. However, City’s rivals have European distractions of their own. Manchester United now face a Europa League campaign, although Arsenal and Chelsea survived precarious group stages to join them in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Winning the tournament seems a fanciful thought for every English team, City included. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona are playing in a stratum of their own and it seems unlikely that any other club will disturb them. Much has been made of the widening gulf between those three clubs and the top English teams, despite the increased finances available in the Premier League. Essentially, the riches secured by fresh broadcasting deals has meant that the emerging ‘middle class’ of Premier League clubs such as West Ham, Leicester City, Crystal Palace and Swansea City have had the money to buy players who could conceivably play for one of the ‘top four’ teams.
Dimitri Payet at West Ham and Yohann Cabaye at Palace are good examples. Both players could comfortably play for any of the established top four, even if they wouldn’t improve their starting XI’s necessarily. It would be wrong to describe Everton as ‘emerging’ given the time they have spent in the top flight, but their £28 million purchase of Romelu Lukaku is another buy you could place in this category. At the same time, despite shed-loads of cash, the Champions League clubs haven’t had the clout to tempt Europe’s truly elite level players away from Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich (the likes of Raphael Varane, Sergio Busquets or Robert Lewandowski, not to mention Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale). These are the two main reasons why the Premier League appears more ‘competitive’; the gap between the top four and the rest reduced. If the top clubs can get their hands on some of the aforementioned players from abroad, then the gap will open up again.
Manchester City could legitimately claim to have the best chance of all of the English teams left in the Champions League. The club, as well as Manuel Pellegrini, have already won the Premier League title within recent memory. Pellegrini is yet to win a major European trophy in his career. The motivation to take the next step ought to be there. Question marks remain over their tactical acumen; can Pellegrini incorporate David Silva and Yaya Toure into the same XI without being too open in midfield? Can Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero stay fit?
All of these unknowns suggest that winning the competition remains more of a dream than a realistic goal, and I think the club will be keen to play it down. If they were to progress into the latter stages though, I expect their gaze to turn away from the Premier League; this could become visible in Pellegrini’s team selection. They will never admit it, but City’s priorities could be shifting.
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