Manchester City swerve giants but still face tough task

Pellegrini’s side grouped with beaten finalistd Juventus and Sevilla

Manchester City last met Juventus in the Europa League group stages five years ago. Photo: Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Manchester City last met Juventus in the Europa League group stages five years ago. Photo: Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

 

There may be no group of death in this season’s Champions League but the one containing last year’s beaten finalists, Juventus, and the Europa League winners, Sevilla, looks tricky enough to provide an early test of Manchester City’s ability to make a more memorable impact on the competition in the wake of another big round of spending.

City got the toughest draw of the four English clubs with Arsenal relieved no doubt after finding themselves up against Bayern Munich for the third time in four seasons, that there is scope on this occasion for them both to progress.

Of the Premier league outfits, Chelsea and Manchester United have the most to be happy about, with José Mourinho’s greatest test coming in the form of a game he will relish, back at the club where he made his name, Porto. Louis Van Gaal will head home after a fashion too, though not quite to the same extent as Memphis Depay, who will be back playing at PSV rather sooner than he expected.

 

Return journey

All will be pleased to have avoided the prospect of a 7,000-mile return journey to Astana that might have posed serious challenges with regard to the surrounding league fixtures but City will no doubt be glad too that they have drafted in some high-priced reinforcements for a programme that now includes visits from the Italian champions on September 15th and, in late October, from a Seville side that finished fifth in La Liga and impressed during the latter stages of its successful Europa League campaign.

 

Still, there was more than a hint of relief as City executive Brian Marwood weighed up what might have been. “Well, it’s a little bit different this time,” he said when asked if the club, having been on the receiving end of a couple of tough ones, was cursed in the Champions League.

“We didn’t get Barcelona and we didn’t get Bayern Munich – let’s hope we get them further in the competition, that would mean we’ve progressed.

“It’s the best 32 clubs in Europe so you have to expect there will be some tough games in there,” he continued, “and we do always seem to draw very difficult groups, but it is what it is, I’m sure it could have been tougher.”

Last year, the club finished seven points behind Bayern in the group stage before losing 3-1 on aggregate to the eventual champions, Barcelona, in the first knockout round.

Asked if the aim for the moment was simply to get further this time around, Marwood suggested it was the expectation: “Last year was a disappointment; finishing second in the Premier League and last 16 in the Champions League – that is how we are measured now.

“We were hurt by not winning it [the Premier League] last year and not doing better in the Champions League. We have an ambition to be successful and to do that you need good players. Over the years we have made a lot of improvements, this is our fifth consecutive season in the Champions League and, as we have seen already, we look in good shape.”

Improvements

The improvements are still ongoing, of course, with Kevin De Bruyne's arrival from another group competitor - Wolfsburg - yet to be completed and the German club's sporting director, Klaus Allofs, made clear who he expects the midfielder to be playing for in the coming months.

“This morning there was a press conference in Wolfsburg where we had to announce that the deal was not already done because the German newspapers they said it was,” he said. “During the day, though, we have gone on with negotiations and we’ve got closer to each other. Hopefully we will find an end soon.”

Amongst the less affluent clubs in some of the other groups there was inevitable talk of springing a surprise but a sense too that these coming contensts are to be savoured before the game’s biggest sides leaves the rest behind and settle the silverware between them.

“I was predicting that we were going to play against Real Madrid, Bayern and Olympiacos. I got two right and we get Arsenal as well in the group,” said Dinamo Zagreb coach Zoran Mamic. “We have great matches, excellent football and full stands waiting.

“I said after the play-offs that we will do some harm to somebody in the group,” he continued. “We will do our best and we will be better and smarter than we were before. Let’s enjoy that we are part of it and I repeat – we’ll do absolutely the best we can and let’s see where it brings us.

For Barcelona, bidding to be the first side’s to successfully retain this title in its current form, the group stage really should be something of a formality but the club’s president Josep Maria Bartomeu was respectful but optimistic after Luis Enrique and co were drawn with Bayer Leverkusen, BATE Borisov and Roma.

“We’ve been drawn with good teams and the fans will be excited about the matches. The teams are all strong, especially Roma, and it will be a great spectacle.

“The away trips will take their toll, but I don’t think any of the trips are too long. I also think that our squad is more competitive than ever and capable of retaining the Champions League, although it will be difficult.”

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