Roberto Mancini admitted last night that Manchester City will be locked into an eternal cycle of Champions League groups of death unless they can begin transferring their domestic form to Europe.
A total of 57 shots have rained in on City's goal in this season's competition so far - more than any other club across the eight groups - and with one point mustered from those unconvincing first two games, exactly the same points tally after the opening matches of last year's unsuccessful group stage, tonight has another make-or-break quality about it. Mancini would not even contemplate the notion that defeat against a young Ajax side would bring this campaign to a close. "We can't think about games this way. We have to win and then talk," he said. But he smiled winsomely when it was put to him that City faced a third successive campaign up against the Europe's toughest sides if they could not break through to the high ground of the knock-out stage. "We want to play for a better seeding," Mancini said. "We must take our chance."
It was perhaps encouraging that his players wanted to take in how it feels to be at club with a rich European history yesterday. The manager dispensed with the recent practice of training at Carrington to meet their requests to view an Amsterdam Arena stadium whose interior walls are adorned with images of legends.
After the pounding Joe Hart's goal received from Borussia Dortmund, who beat the Dutch side only narrowly, Mancini - who is without David Silva, Jack Rodwell, Maicon and Javi Garcia - has grounds for more anxiety and Vincent Kompany's was also a bit touchy about the error which allowed Shane Long to score against City for West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. "My fitness is great, I'm in top form," he said sharply. "I'm just looking forward to the many games that are coming. "I can only say I have a long career ahead of me, anyone say it won't happen again would be lying."
If City can't progress through these back-to-back ties with the Dutch, who are yet to record a point, then they do not deserve to progress in the tournament of European champions.
Frank De Boer was proud to say that Mancini's four strikers "cost more than the annual turnover here", though his reliance on youth is not all a bed of roses at the moment. De Boer was so infuriated by the callow sacrifice of a two-goal in the 3-3 draw with Heracles Almelo at the weekend that he accused the players of lacking the same ability to "punch dressing room walls" that he possessed as a player. His striker Ryan Babel observed wryly yesterday that the walls "must have been softer back then." But De Boer said he would certainly rather do it the fabled Ajax way than the City way, though he was reluctant to add his club's name to the list of continental sides who castigate Abu Dhabi's spend on City as immoral. "It is like that," he said of their money. "They do nothing illegal I think. We have no money like that so we have to be inventive and creative and we try to use our academy to get good development of young players and that's how we survive. I like it more that way than just buying them, even though that's much easier. It's a philosophy. We have a different philosophy."
The loss of his best two players, Jan Vertonghen and Anita Vurnon, to Tottenham and Newcastle United respectively has left the manager with a side of topsy-turvy form, who were overwhelmed 4-1 by Real Madrid here three weeks ago, and have little in reserve. It tells us something that they are reliant on Liverpool's cast-offs - Christian Poulsen and a rejuvenated Babel - for experience.
A Dutch journalist's curiosity with the modern legend of moneyed Manchester City led to Mancini being asked whether it was true that nine times out of ten he bought the players he wants. "It is not true that I get [who] I want," he replied. The same goes for Champions League opposition. Tonight is the chance to put a change to that.