After four years of solid but turgid football under Roberto Mancini, the new Manuel Pellegrini era will be a breathe of fresh air for Manchester City – and could be the start of their improvement in Europe.
There’s no doubt their 2012 Premier League success was a watershed moment, but success in the Champions League deserted Mancini. His tactical inflexibility was clear even in his last game in charge, failing to adjust his defensive 4-2-3-1 formation to deal with Wigan’s Callum McManaman in the FA Cup final in May. The Italian eventually paid the price for such conservatism.
Mancini’s Champions League record at City wasn't impressive: P12 W3 D4 L5. And given that two of those three victories came against a poor Villarreal side and the other against a significantly weakened Bayern Munich – who had already qualified for the knockout phase as group winners – it doesn’t make great reading.
But it’s worth City fans casting their eye across Manchester and recalling how long it took Sir Alex Ferguson to crack the Champions League. United spent a whole six years from their first appearance in the competition under Ferguson working towards their 1999 triumph. Only three players in the side that won at Camp Nou – Peter Schmeichel, Dennis Irwin and Ryan Giggs – featured when United crashed and burned against Galatasaray in 1993.
Ferguson gradually got his head around the competition and, through failure, learnt what it took to win it. In the same way, Pellegrini must learn from City’s back-to-back first round exits in the last two seasons.
With no Champions League pedigree, City were handed tough groups. Their first attempt saw them thrown in with top seeds Bayern and Napoli before last year finding themselves in a group of death alongside Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax. The fact Real and Dortmund met in the semi-finals illustrates that City were unlucky to face such calibre so early.
Pellegrini will firstly hope the draw does his side some favours, before unleashing their new attacking style on the competition – a move that may win City more than a few fans on the continent.
The majority of the sides to have experienced success in Europe over the past few years have played attacking football; it’s a style that can be richly rewarded in the Champions League if the game plan is right. Sides that “go for it” can catapult themselves deep into the knockout stages, as Tottenham and Schalke proved in 2011. Pellegrini’s brand of positive football brought results for Malaga, who with a bit more luck may have progressed into the last four of last season’s competition at Dortmund’s expense.
Soon after taking his first City training session, Pellegrini told the media: “One of the important things is the way my teams have always played. City fans will see a different way of playing to previous years.
“I won’t say better or worse, we’ll have to wait to see our results, but I am sure we will play an attractive game. We will always try to play in the opponent’s half and be an attacking team.”
“That’s the way I’ve always done it and that’s the way I will do it with City. I know the last two years in the Champions League hasn’t been very good for City in the Champions League so we will try to improve that.”
The new signings will help City too. Fernandinho will add a spark to the midfield, while Jesus Navas will offer a threat on the wings that Mancini was never keen to explore. While Carlos Tevez will be a loss, Pellegrini has reinforced City’s attack with Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic, meaning goals shouldn’t be a problem. If the individual defensive errors that cost City dear last season can be eradicated, they may just go a step further in Europe.
But the Champions League is also something that must be worked on, and Pellegrini is certainly the man to take City forward. Just qualifying for the knockout phase would represent a significant improvement and that alone should be considered a successful European campaign, should they achieve it. It may take City two years to trouble the likes of Barca and Bayern.It may take three. But the one thing City can’t do is rush it.
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