Blue moon orbits elite

City join Euro top table and set their sights on progress

MANCHESTER CITY were yesterday ushered into the VIP area of European football.

City officials sat quietly, but euphorically, in the Grimaldi Forum here, rubbing shoulders with dignitaries from Barcelona and Real Madrid, watching as legends of the game such as Luis Figo, Bobby Charlton, Paul Breitner, Lothar Matthaus and Ruud Gullit made the Champions League draw. And City were in it.

“The football club is making history,'' said Brian Marwood, City's football administrator after Roberto Mancini's men were pitted against Bayern Munich, Villarreal and Napoli. “It's the first time City have ever competed at this (Champions League) level and it's such an exciting time for everyone connected with the club.''

Tuning in from afar, it meant everything for fans to envisage a Blue Moon rising over Europe. They have spent so long on the outside looking in, and now they are at the best football party in town. Marwood nodded at the mention that four days after United defeated Bayern to seal the Treble in 1999, City were embroiled in a play-off shoot-out with Gillingham to escape the third tier of English football. Now they are among the highrollers in Monaco, watching greats of the game sending them on an epic European tour.

“I'd have loved some of our fans to have sat here, fans who have experienced those wet, horrible nights at some of those dark and dank football grounds over the last 15 years,'' said Marwood. “Everybody knows the history of the club. It's been inconsistent for a number of years.” AMBITION And now? Billowing ambition fills City's spinnaker, the club targeting success in the Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup and Carling Cup. For all the menace rippling though Group A, City know that they were the Pot Three seed, the team with Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri, David Silva and Yaya Toure, that everyone wanted to avoid. “That might show you how far we've come,'' said Marwood.

Aguero can expect an emotional reception at Napoli, where his father- in-law Diego Maradona is still revered. City have experienced campaigners, but it takes time to build the collective nous to prevail in Europe. But if they prove quick learners, City possess the man-power and manager to threaten the European establishment. Prediction? After a few nervy nights, City to progress to the knock-out stage. Far from seeing them as pesky, noisy neighbours, David Gill was delighted with City's re-emergence. “It's good for Manchester to have two teams in the Champions League,'' said United's chief executive. “It's good for the city.''

No wonder. United were given a draw that should have come wrapped in a bow, dipped in Cologne and covered with felt-tip kisses. Charlton joined Breitner in setting up a Group C pairing with Benfica, reviving memories of the 1968 final. United also have good memories of playing Basel, while the October 18 away game at newcomers Otelul Galati will move to Steaua Bucharest's ground. “We don't really know much about Otelul Galati but that's the beauty of the Champions League, you get fresh teams to play against,'' said Alex Ferguson. He spoke with respect for the opposition but he could have been forgiven for throwing a street party. Prediction? United to sail through. Group E represents a significant challenge for Chelsea. Mestalla, Valencia's fastness, is hardly the easiest of trips, although it will be an emotional one on September 28 for Juan Mata.

Bayer Leverkusen have embarrassed English teams before, so Chelsea will travel warily. Genk will be depicted as Group E whipping boys but could nick a point or two. Prediction? Chelsea to be too strong, too experienced and they will progress. Reward for defeating Udinese in the play-off brought Arsenal a Group F pairing with Marseille, Olympiakos and Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal must take care.

Prediction? With Jack Wilshere back, and judicious signings at centre-half and midfield, Arsenal to progress.