Saturday 3 December 2016

Pep Guardiola braced for Barca reunion after unkind Champions League draw

Dual challenge awaits City manager in difficult European assignments

Mark Ogden

Published 26/08/2016 | 02:30

The return of Guardiola to face his former club will add lustre to an already stellar fixture. Photo: Reuters
The return of Guardiola to face his former club will add lustre to an already stellar fixture. Photo: Reuters

Pep Guardiola must overcome the dual challenge of a return to Barcelona and potentially hazardous Battle of Britain encounter with Celtic if he is guide Manchester City through the Champions League group stages after his new club were handed a daunting path to the knock-out round in yesterday's draw in Monaco.

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Pep Guardiola must overcome the dual challenge of a return to Barcelona and potentially hazardous Battle of Britain encounter with Celtic if he is guide Manchester City through the Champions League group stages after his new club were handed a daunting path to the knock-out round in yesterday's draw in Monaco.

Guardiola, whose teams have been eliminated at the semi-final stage of the Champions League in each of the last four seasons, has also been handed a swift return to Germany, having spent the last three campaigns in charge of Bayern Munich, with Borussia Monchengladbach, who faced City in last year's group stage, completing a hugely difficult Group D for the club.

Stand-out

City's double-header with five-time European champions Barca is the stand-out fixture involving England's four representatives in the group stage, with Premier League champions Leicester City, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur all handed favourable draws.

Leicester, making their Champions League debut, will expect to progress to the round of 16 having been paired with FC Porto, Club Brugge and FC Copenhagen in Group G.

Read More: Pep Guardiola maintains his winning touch as City win again to ease into Champions League group stage

Arsenal will also be backed to secure a place in the knockout stages once again after being drawn in Group A with Paris Saint-Germain, FC Basel and Ludogorets Razgrad, the champions of Bulgaria.

And Tottenham, despite having been forced to stage their home games at Wembley due to construction work at White Hart Lane, will be confident of navigating their way through a group containing CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen and AS Monaco.

The biggest challenge facing Spurs could be that of selling out Wembley, which is expected to have a restricted capacity for fixtures against three clubs who lack the status of European heavyweights.

City will not have that problem at the Etihad Stadium, however, with Barcelona due to visit for the third time in four seasons and Celtic set for their first competitive fixture in the blue half of Manchester.

Under Manuel Pellegrini, City twice suffered elimination at the last 16 stage at the hands of Barcelona, but the return of Guardiola to face his former club will add lustre to an already stellar fixture.

Read More: Does the absence of Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea detract from the Champions League?

The game will also ensure a swift reunion with Barcelona for goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, who completed a £13.75m transfer from the Nou Camp to City yesterday.

Guardiola, who guided Barcelona to Champions League titles during his four-year reign as coach at the club, will not be facing the Spanish champions for the first time since leaving in 2012, having suffered a 5-3 aggregate defeat against Luis Enrique's team in the 2013-'14 semi-finals.

But with Guardiola adding to the Catalan connection at City, joining chief executive Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain at the Etihad, the meeting between the two clubs will prove to be a box-office occasion, both in Manchester and Barcelona.

Scottish champions Celtic will face City having won seven and lost six of their 18 previous European fixtures against English clubs.

But while Brendan Rodgers' team will be underdogs in the group, their formidable Champions League record at Celtic Park, where they have defeated Barcelona and Manchester United in recent seasons, ensures that City will travel to Glasgow on September 28 mindful of the unique difficulties that the fixture will pose.

City then face Barcelona in Spain on October 19 before hosting Lionel Messi and Co on November 1.

With only nine of 46 Champions League debutants making it through the group stages since the 2003-'04 season, Leicester must buck the trend to remain in the competition beyond the turn of the year, but Claudio Ranieri's team will not be daunted having avoided the more difficult opponents in Pots Two, Three and Four. Brugge's Jan Breydel Stadium will host Leicester's first Champions League fixture on September 14, with Ranieri insisting his team will be underdogs in the competition.

Read More: Pep Guardiola: Joe Hart is a legend of Man City but it's impossible to keep everyone happy

"Once again I say we are underdogs," Ranieri said. "For this reason, we must fight for everything. But our supporters deserve the chance to watch their team around Europe against teams like Porto, Club Brugge and Copenhagen."

Away from the British contingent, Group D will see Bayern Munich face Atletico Madrid, their conquerors at the semi-final stage last season, with Group F providing a Real Madrid-Borussia Dortmund clash, as well as a return to Sporting Lisbon for Cristiano Ronaldo.

But the group stage is all about Guardiola and if he is to take City to European glory by winning next June's final in Cardiff, he is going to have to do it the hard way.

Independent News Service

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