Wednesday 28 September 2016

City spending gives them formidable options in Europe

Paul Wilson

Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30

Manchester City splashed £150million on a number of stars over the summer, including Kevin De Bruyne
Manchester City splashed £150million on a number of stars over the summer, including Kevin De Bruyne

It is a measure of the way the balance of power is shifting in Manchester that, when the Champions League gets under way this week, more attention will be paid to City's first game than Louis van Gaal returning to Holland with United.

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Partly that is because City have a more glamorous tie against Juventus, last season's runners-up, but partly it is because the lavishly-funded Etihad exercise in trying to conquer Europe has become as engrossing a narrative as United's of 20 years ago, when the dominant team in England kept finding themselves coming up short against the best Italy, Germany and Spain could offer.

That all changed in 1999 when United outfought Juventus in Turin en route to a famous victory over Bayern Munich in the final, though it took the best part of a decade for Sir Alex Ferguson and his players to relearn the European ropes, and there were unexpected setbacks against Galatasaray, Gothenburg, Borussia Dortmund and Monaco along the way.

City's story has been rather different. Since gaining admission to the Champions League, four years ago, they have been pitted against Bayern Munich and Barcelona on a regular basis, and despite some determined performances, have generally been found out at the highest level.

This time, with a cool £150million invested over the summer in players such as Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Nicolas Otamendi, City have made an impressive start to the domestic season and are in a position to regard a difficult Champions League group that includes Sevilla, Monchengladbach and Juventus as negotiable.

The Italian champions represent the first real test of this theory, though Juve at the moment are not quite looking at the same level as the side that ended last season so strongly, winning a fourth successive Serie A title and dumping Real Madrid out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage.

Carlos Tevez has returned home to Argentina for a start, so the only Mancunian homecomings will be those of players with United connections. Patrice Evra, sent off in the recent defeat by Roma, and Paul Pogba, on United's books for three years before leaving for Italy, most likely to end up in Barcelona once the Catalans are free to buy players again.

Even with Pogba in their ranks, Juventus have just completed their worst-ever start to a Serie A season, losing their first two games to Udinese and Roma.

Alvaro Morata and Sami Khedira missed both those matches through injury, which could not have helped, though Juventus are restructuring at the moment, attempting to lower the age of the squad and bed in new players around the experienced core of Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Claudio Marchisio. Marcelo Lippi, their former coach, does not believe the blip in form will be permanent, though he has warned that Juventus can expect a tough test at the Etihad.

Most Italian observers are particularly impressed with Sterling and the pace and penetration he offers. The former Liverpool player might be struggling for his best form with England, but City know how to use him to either get behind defences or create space for Sergio Aguero to do so.

With De Bruyne now available, City boast a formidable forward line that revolves around David Silva's influence in the centre, and just about the only worry for Manuel Pellegrini - after spending the international break sitting on top of the Premier League table with a flawless record - is how soon to name his strongest line-up. That consideration applies to defence as well as attack.

One can only suppose Otamendi was brought in at a cost of £28million because central defence was a problem area last season, though initially at least, Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala have managed to form a solid partnership this time.

Elsewhere, Manchester United's opponents should not be underestimated as Memphis Depay makes a quick return to his former club.

PSV Eindhoven may not boast as many household names as they once did, but they won the Eredivisie under Phillip Cocu last season and were thus seeded above Van Gaal's team.

With Wolfsburg also ending up in Group B after CSKA Moscow had been drawn third, United may have found a trickier route to the knockout stages than their neighbours.

City have some big opponents lined up, but United face the sort of sides capable of springing an ambush.

Chelsea and Arsenal, the Premier League's other representatives in Europe, have at least avoided that fate. Chelsea begin their campaign with a home game against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Wednesday and, given Jose Mourinho's extensive knowledge of Porto, ought to be able to survive a group where the only arduous trip is to Dynamo Kiev.

Arsenal have a potentially awkward visit to Zagreb on the same night, and when Arsenal are in Europe nothing can ever be taken for granted, though it would be a major surprise were anyone other than Arsene Wenger's team and Bayern Munich to make it out of Group F.

After last season, when no English team made it into the last eight, it is what happens after the group stages that will be most interesting, though the immediate challenge for all four contenders is to improve on last year and stay in the competition until the New Year.

The focus may be on Manchester at the moment, though that is where the upsets might happen, too.

Assuming Chelsea do not take their early-season domestic form into Europe, the two London clubs look the safer bets to stick around.

Sunday Indo Sport

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