Manchester City could be only 90 minutes away from the great leap forward of the Sheikh Mansour project. Defeat CSKA Moscow at the Etihad Stadium this evening and the world's richest club are all but certain to reach the Champions League knockout stage for the first time.
Five years after the sheikh made City the billionaires in blue the failures of the past two years will be forgotten if Manuel Pellegrini’s side win, with only the unlikely scenario of a thus far pointless Viktoria Plzen winning all of their last three games able to stop them.
A confluence of factors cost Roberto Mancini the post taken up by Pellegrini, though finishing bottom of the group in last season's competition was a defining one. The corollary of this meant the chief consideration when hiring Pellegrini was a Champions League CV that reads reaching a semi-final and two quarter-finals (when in charge at Villarreal and Malaga).
Pellegrini says of how three points against Leonid Slutski’s side tonight would provide a major shift at his club: “For Manchester City it is a very great achievement. We all know what happened the last two years; they couldn’t go to the round of 16. For a club that is trying to grow every day to go to the next round is very important.
"It is not easy to talk about what can happen in the future. We have a very good squad and the minimum thing this squad needs is to qualify for the round of 16. Afterwards in two-leg play-offs anything can happen. We will try to do the first step and then to continue in February. Our only target is to qualify."
The blue zone
Pablo Zabaleta, the right-back who was signed the day before Sheikh Mansour planted Abu Dhabi's flag in the blue zone of Manchester, said: "In last four, five years we have improved incredibly. The owners have spent a lot of money to make us one of the best teams in Europe. We know it takes time. We won the FA Cup, we won the Premier League, but the Champions League is different. You play against the best teams and it has not been easy.
“But now we are very confident and it is time for us to take a step forward. We are still improving as a team and hopefully in the next few years, we can be one of the best clubs in Europe.
“I think we have a great chance to go through to the next stage if we can win.”
City enter this game on a roll having trounced Norwich City 7-0 at home on Saturday. The performance was Pellegrini's team in the same mode that took apart Manchester United 4-1 earlier this season and a view is forming that City could be on the verge of becoming a consistent scoring machine that takes all-comers apart.
"Yes I think it was a great result," said Zabeleta of the win over Chris Hughton's struggling Norwich. "Seven-nil for every team is great, especially for us because we had a very difficult week after the game we lost against Chelsea in the last minute. It was really hard but then I think we responded really well."
Yet a glance at City’s record in the campaign shows a five-game unbeaten run (which includes a draw) in August and September the closest they have come to the consistency required to win a trophy.
In the game a fortnight ago in Moscow, City conceded first, after 32 minutes, when Zoran Tosic scored, before two quick Sergio Aguero strikes before half-time sealed what could prove a crucial win.
Asked where CSKA might threaten at the Etihad, Pellegrini said: “Not only is Honda a good player, he played also in Germany, but I think CSKA has a lot of good players. We played a very close game in Russia and I suppose it will be the same thing.”
Pellegrini confirmed that Alvaro Negredo was replaced at half-time against Norwich only to rest him but City will again be without their captain Vincent Kompany and Stevan Jovetic because of injury. "Alvaro is okay, he doesn't have any problem. He just played 45 minutes because he played 115 minutes three days before. For tomorrow he doesn't have any problem. Except Vincent Kompany and Richard Wright , all the other players are fit. Also Jovetic has at least three weeks out."