Manchester City appear to be on the precipice of something great. Years of unstinting investment by their rich owners has already paid off domestically in the form of two Premier League titles in four seasons, plus what in all likelihood will be a third come the end of the current campaign. But any ambitious club’s true hunger is for success in the Champions League, and after routinely coming up short in that competition, this year the Sky Blues must prove they have what it takes to compete in the continent’s most prestigious tournament.
Today, Man City welcome Juventus to town, giving the Citizens their first opportunity to announce their intentions on the UCL stage. And judging by both teams’ respective starts to the season, there’s every reason to believe City can kick things off with a convincing and important win.
City have assembled their best team in the Sheikh Mansour era, and it’s borne out in results. In just five Premier League matches they’ve proven themselves to be the best team in the country, and by a good margin. Yaya Touré looks refreshed and re-energized, more like the one-man blitzkrieg of two seasons ago than his merely really good form of last year; Fernandinho has become the perfectly complimentary midfield partner for Touré they’ve search long and expensively for; Sergio Agüero is still one of the top two or three strikers in the world; David Silva still has the power to use his baby blue shirt to blend in with the surrounding sky, becoming invisible to helpless defenders unable to stop his dashes into the box and zipping passes into teammates; and Raheem Sterling, while not (yet) a full-blown superstar on his own right, has brought newfound directness and unpredictability to City’s attack. And that’s before either of their high-priced late-window additions, Kevin De Bruyne and Nicolás Otamendi, have made a single start. The squad is overflowing with world-class talent, coming together best in their 3-0 smashing of Chelsea:
However, this scenario doesn’t differ too much from where City have found themselves these last couple years. They certainly are better now, but even before their disappointing results in the Champions League were not commiserate with their talent. Manager Manuel Pellegrini’s predecessor in the City dugout, Roberto Mancini, took the then-nouveau riche club into the Champions League, won them their first top-division title in over 40 years, and steered a dressing room booby trapped with explosive egos into a perennial title contender. For his reward, he was sacked after finishing second in the league for, among other reasons, not playing pretty enough soccer and not doing anything of note in the Champions League.
Photo of Manuel Pellegrini via AP
Their solution was to bring in Pellegrini, a poetical soul, more of an aesthete, who comes off like a man that spends his off seasons sitting alone in the rolling countryside of his native Chile, armed with the fiction of Roberto Bolaño, solemnly contemplating the beauty and chaos of South America and trying to figure out how those reflections can help him coax the best performances out of Jesús Navas. “You see Jesús,” he’s probably said, pulling the Spanish winger off to the side during some midday training session in August, gently resting his hand on Navas’s shoulder in a fatherly way. “Father Urrutia found his joy outside in nature, with the poetry he loved and the friends he could share his hopes and dreams and fears with, away from the political turmoil of the capital. So to must you find your joy out here amongst the blades of grass and painted lines of the pitch, drumming the ball with that right foot of yours, alongside your teammates who love and trust you.”
Pellegrini has brought success in the Premier League of both the objective and artistic variety, yet has similarly failed in Europe. In back to back seasons, City have been booted from the Champions League in the Round of 16 by the team they so very wish to be like, Barcelona. Those two knockout round draws were unkind to the Citizens in large part because of their failure to finish first in their group, both seasons ending up second to Bayern Munich. While coming out on top of the English league is probably the second-most impressive feat a club can manage in any given season, the Champions League remains a class above. And despite all the money spent on players and coaches, City have been shown time and again that they still are no match for Europe’s true greats.
Photo of Juventus players via Getty
Today’s match can go a long way towards rectifying this. City find themselves in what is on paper the toughest group of them all. However, Group D competitors Juventus, Sevilla, and Borussia Mönchengladbach have all struggled in their own domestic leagues. This Juve squad, while still City’s biggest competitor for the top spot in Group D, is completely different from the one that wound up in the UCL final a few months ago. They’ve yet to find a new equilibrium after losing Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal, and Andrea Pirlo this summer. In three Serie A matches, Juventus have only eked out a single point.
A home win over Juve would give Man City a large advantage in what will probably be a wire-to-wire group stage battle. Finishing on top of the group would most likely see them avoid the best of the best in the first knockout round, which itself could finally mean a real Champions League run. A loss or even a draw would signal would a huge setback, especially considering all the momentum they’ve accumulated in the EPL.
City need a win and a deep(er) UCL run to validate their work over these last few years. The squad itself is good enough to compete in Europe, and if Pellegrini can’t make it happen this time, he could quite possibly find himself out of a job at the end of the season, even with another EPL title. (City flirted with the former Borussia Dortmund boss Jürgen Klopp just this past summer and if Bayern’s Pep Guardiola really does become a free agent after this season as all signs seem to indicate, it would be hard not to chase him seriously even with Pellegrini’s relative success.) The pressure is on, but judging by what we’ve already seen about a month into the new season, it’s nothing City can’t handle.
Top photo via Getty