MANCHESTER // Big ambitions, small surroundings. When Manchester City begin their third Champions League campaign on Tuesday night, it will be in the competition’s most cramped ground. Viktoria Plzen’s Struncovy Sady stadium holds just 11,700 people.
And yet it feels both apt and encouraging. The gulf between City’s aims and achievements in Europe has been worryingly wide.
They have visited some of the continent’s iconic venues, from Real Madrid’s Bernabeu to Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena, and returned empty-handed.
Instead, a trip off the beaten track to a rather less glamorous destination offers hope of a change of fortunes. City should relish the obscurity.
A new era begins in earnest against underdogs. On paper, Plzen are the poorest team City have faced so far in the Champions League. They played Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal two seasons ago, Ajax, Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid last year.
Now they encounter rank outsiders and under a manager hired in part because of his track record of exceeding expectations in the competition.
For Manuel Pellegrini, it has been a staggered start to life at City, from his first friendlies to the beginning of the Premier League season and now the kick-off in the Champions League. This explains his appointment.
In 2006, the Chilean took Villarreal, in their debut year among the European elite, to the brink of the final; had Arsenal’s Jens Lehmann not saved Juan Roman Riquelme’s last-minute penalty, it is almost certain they would have progressed. Last year contained another tale of admirable overachievement that was almost greater.
“It is very difficult to arrive in the Champions League with Malaga and go — I would say to semi-final because we were eliminated in the quarter-final but … ask the referee,” he said in July.
For the record, Malaga were seconds from the last four when Borussia Dortmund scored an offside winner. If it continues to annoy Pellegrini, City’s irritations are altogether different.
They may deem their Champions League campaigns an expensive embarrassment, especially as the second was worse than the first. Their initial efforts yielded 10 points, respectable failure in the toughest of pools; last season’s winless attempts brought just three.
“I know the last two years of Manchester City was not very good playing Champions League,” Pellegrini said bluntly when unveiled as manager.
Some of his predecessor’s explanations had descended into excuses. Besides bemoaning the draws that pitted City against the best, Roberto Mancini had argued that it takes time for newcomers to the competition to excel.
Pellegrini’s record serves as a rebuttal of that theory.
While he was eliminated in the last 16 during his solitary season at Madrid, suffering exactly the same fate as every other manager at the Bernabeu during a five-year spell of unwanted consistency, he has taken Villarreal and Malaga into uncharted territory at the first tie of asking.
To his frustration, Pellegrini has spent weeks answering questions about his unfamiliarity with English football. Now, in Europe, he can deliver his answers from a position of proven expertise.
The paradox of Mancini was that he was an imported manager with a squad containing a contingent of Champions League winners, but who was at his happiest in domestic competitions.
Now two of those Champions League winners, Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli, are gone. None of Pellegrini’s four main arrivals have ever reached the semi-finals of the competition.
Confounding the cliche, his conclusion appears to be that there is a substitute for experience. Resting players in preparation for European games, as he did for Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Stoke City, seems part of his formula.
Understanding where they went wrong is also pivotal.
“We have to learn from our past two experiences in the Champions League that saw us getting eliminated fairly quickly,” striker Sergio Aguero said.
Quickly and acrimoniously. Last season’s exit came amid Mancini telling Joe Hart to concentrate on making saves rather than criticising the team, the manager rebuking Joleon Lescott for failing to jump when marking Ajax’s Niklas Moisander at a corner and telling Micah Richards he should be able to adapt to his controversial three-man defence.
The previous year’s foray into Europe is remembered most for Tevez’s refusal to warm up in Munich and the subsequent breakdown in his relationship with Mancini.
If they lose this season, it will at least be more harmoniously. As chief executive Ferran Soriano said in May: “This is something we are convinced about — myself, the board, the owner — that it is impossible for us to win the Champions League in the end, if we don’t have a group that behaves like a family.”
Arguably City have resembled a dysfunctional family in the past. Not in the future, however, Soriano insisted. “Like a family where there are no such criticisms as we have discussed, where everybody respects everybody.”
The pre-match rhetoric will be that City respect Plzen. Before a ball has been kicked, the logical narrative of the group is that Bayern, the defending champions, will win it and Plzen will do well to record a win, leaving City and CSKA Moscow to contest second place.
Pellegrini’s view is that their destiny depends upon them.
Once again, it is a marked difference from Mancini’s policy of complaining about the draw.
“If you think you are going to qualify for the last 16 because the other teams are weak, you would be making a very big mistake,” the Chilean argued. Yet the weakest of all gives them scope for a rare good start. City, who have been singing the blues, could have their own Bohemian rhapsody.
City’s Champions League campaigns
Ten points normally secures qualification, but not for City. They beat the group’s whipping boys Villarreal home and away: the problem is, so did everyone else. After an opening draw against Napoli, their campaign effectively came down to two games: the September trip to Munich, where Mario Gomez scored a quick-fire brace for Bayern and Carlos Tevez refused to come on, and November’s visit to Napoli, when Edinson Cavani scored a decisive double.
When Aleksandar Kolarov put City 2-1 ahead at the Bernabeu, they were five minutes from a landmark win. Instead Real Madrid rallied and won. While Joe Hart’s heroics and Mario Balotelli’s injury-time penalty prevented defeat against Borussia Dortmund, a return of one point from the back-to-back games against underdogs Ajax was disastrous. City ended winless and it summed up their campaign when they lost their final game with barely a whimper to a much-weakened Dortmund team.
Pellegrini’s two best campaigns
The Spanish club’s eventual journey to the brink of the final was thrilling but it began without incident. Their six group games only included four goals but they only conceded one of those to top a pool including Benfica and Manchester United. Pellegrini’s men eliminated first Rangers and then Inter Milan on the away goals rule. Then came Arsenal. After a 1-0 defeat in London, Villarreal had a last-minute penalty at home. But Jens Lehmann saved from Juan Roman Riquelme and the Gunners were the finalists.
If cash-strapped Malaga weren’t the favourites, they all but ensured qualification after three group games. They won all, keeping a clean sheet in each victory, and a hat-trick of draws ensured they finished ahead of AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg and Anderlecht. Porto were beaten in the last 16, taking Pellegrini’s men into a quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund. They drew 0-0 at La Rosaleda but led twice at the Westfalenstadion before two injury-time goals, the second from an offside Felipe Santana, took Dortmund through.