When the Champions League group stage draw took place in Istanbul at the end of August, it’s likely a fair few Manchester City
fans winced at the hand their club had been dealt.
Placed in Group A alongside Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig and Club Brugge, City
haven’t found themselves in a group this tough for quite some time.
While a 6-3 win over Leipzig in City’s first outing in this season’s Champions League might look convincing on paper, Jesse Marsch’s men kept bouncing and showed they’ve got the quality to cause any side problems on their day.
Leipzig’s spirited display coupled with the fact PSG were held to a 1-1 draw by Club Brugge highlights just what a competitive group it is.
Some may shudder at the thought of the 2012/13 group in which City were drawn alongside the champions of Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, but the club have developed massively since then and having tough group stage opponents could actually be a good thing.
It took Pep Guardiola
– one of the game’s most distinguished coaches who has won the Champions League as both a player and a manager – five seasons to get City past the quarter-final stage. A last 16 exit in 2016/17 followed by three consecutive quarter-final disappointments gave the impression that it just wasn’t going to happen – until they reached the final last season.
During that barren spell, Guardiola
continued to emphasise that not facing Europe’s elite until the knockout rounds was hurting City’s chances. In other words, they weren’t being tested enough in the group stages to properly prepare themselves.
Barring 2016/17 – Pep’s City were a work in progress when they faced Barcelona, Celtic, Borussia Monchengladbach and then Monaco in the last 16 – City’s toughest group stage opponents on paper during the Catalan tactician’s tenure had been Napoli, who they dispatched 2-1 at home and 4-2 away in 2017/18. They were then trounced by Liverpool in the quarters.
In 2018/19, Lyon got the better of City with an opening day 2-1 win at the Etihad Stadium before a 2-2 draw in France. City arguably should have gone all the way that year but found themselves dumped out of the competition by Tottenham Hotspur.
© Julian Finney – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images
City suffered a shock quarter-final exit at the hands of Lyon in 2020
In 2019/20, Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb didn’t trouble them much. Lyon then shocked City in a one-legged quarter-final.
What contradicts this is that City reached a first-ever Champions League final last season after facing Porto, Marseille and Olympiacos in the group stage.
However, when you consider that both of their last 16 clashes with Monchengladbach were played at neutral venues, while the respective away fixtures at Borussia Dortmund and PSG were played without the presence of their vociferous supporters, it becomes clear that preparation in the group stages was never going to be that
Cast your mind back to 2015/16 – City were not a good team that season, barely finishing fourth in the Premier League, but they reached the semi-finals of Europe’s premier club competition. Given they had a challenging time in the group stage against Juventus and Sevilla, it’s no wonder City were battle-hardened by the time the knockout rounds were played.
Playing top teams early on in the competition, without the immediate threat of elimination that knockout football brings, is a good thing. It presents a chance to move up a gear sooner, to start playing at the high level that will be required come February.
Then there’s the emotional side to the argument. City made their Champions League debut in 2011/12, a moment that a generation of fans never imagined would actually happen. Even three years before in 2008 – the year Sheikh Mansour’s regime began – eating at European football’s top table was still just a pipe dream for most fans.
© Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Mark Leech Sports Photography/Getty Images
Kevin De Bruyne scored a late winner at home against Sevilla in 2015
This is meant as no disrespect to those outside of football’s elite, but when City fans in the 90s and 2000s dreamt of Europe while City were toiling in various divisions, they couldn’t have even imagined their heroes would one day be trudging out in Kyiv for a 17:45 kick-off. They thought of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, just as youngsters now relish the prospect of a showdown with PSG.
Yes, it’s nice to have a comfortable ride through the group stage, wrap up qualification by matchday five, rest a few key players and give valuable minutes to some youngsters, but that’s not what we fans dream of.
For years we weren’t cool enough to be invited to the exclusive party, but now we’re on the guest list. The glamour ties are what it’s all about. This is the Champions League – if City want to go all the way then they have to face the best at some point.
City have a tough group this year, but let’s relish it and enjoy it. If the worst comes to the worst and we go home early, well, that’s just football. As Manchester United found out in Switzerland, having an ‘easy’ draw doesn’t guarantee anything.
How do you think City will get on in their Champions League group? Follow our new City Fan Brands Writer Alex Brotherton on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.