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Manchester City are not dark horses in Champions League

Pellegrini's men now among the elite

By Ian Herbert

This is the place where Manchester City have developed in the raw. They were taken apart by Bayern Munich on a September night three years ago, which ended with manager Roberto Mancini almost crying with rage in the Allianz Arena press room after Carlos Tevez had refused to take to the field for him.

They were slaughtered for another 11 minutes of last December's Champions League tie, too, by a Bayern team made so complacent by the ease of their early 2-0 lead that they switched off and lost the game 3-2.

"Mistakes come when you think everything's done,'" the Bayern coach, Pep Guardiola, told writer Marti Perarnau in the aftermath of last season's game, which features in the new chronicle of the season, Pep Confidential.

City's comeback on that occasion also revealed a side which had moved on from the Mancini era; equipped with better players than Micah Richards and Gareth Barry who had been so overrun two years earlier.

Yet the unvarnished truth, as they enter their fourth successive Champions League campaign tonight, is that City can no longer claim to be a side in evolution.

Manuel Pellegrini has been equipped with a team for winning now. The average age of tonight's likely starting line-up is 28.7 years.

The youngest player in the side will be 26-year-old Sergio Aguero if, as expected, the French central defender Eliaquim Mangala is not thrown a debut in such an inhospitable place.

Vincent Kompany said all the right things in his discussion of this Group E fixture. Every trophy is our target. Even semi-final exits are for "losers."

The club expects to win this. But there may be more consequences than Abu Dhabi disappointment if they cannot end this journey in Berlin's Olympiastadion next June 6 – or at least travel a long way towards it.

The enticements of Madrid, Paris and clubs beyond will become all the stronger to some of City's players if the side fall short once again.

City have assembled a collection of world-class players but still cannot claim they are a world-class side.

Kompany is one of the most engaging and erudite footballers to sit in front of anywhere in European football but the answer to his claim that "we are not favourites by any means for this competition" was "why not?"

It is no bad thing to be cast into the Allianz Arena as early as this.

Guardiola's press conference was riddled with journalists' expressions of concern about new striker Robert Lewandowski's indifferent start – one domestic goal – and about Franck Ribéry's absence.

Behind Bayern's injury list – Holger Badstuber, Javi Martinez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thiago Alcantara and Rafinha – lies the memory of the side's last European game here: the 4-0 semi-final defeat to Real Madrid in April.

Guardiola felt he was corralled into gung-ho football against his instincts back then, and insists he will do it his way this time.

The sublime start enjoyed here by Xabi Alonso – the embodiment of Guardiola's way – has only reinforced that belief. But it all adds up to a Bayern side feeling its way once again.

There are worries for City, too.

The home defeat to Stoke City last month was almost entirely unprecedented: they have nearly always crushed that kind of home opposition in recent years, but while Bayern's Philipp Lahm reflected on a World Cup hangover, City can rejoice in David Silva and Aguero.

Both have begun the English domestic campaign as if they never went away to Brazil in the summer.

The decision not to have tested Mangala is curious. It again leaves Kompany alongside Martin Demichelis, who was jettisoned from Bayern in the reign of Louis van Gaal and whose error against Barcelona in February spelt the beginning of the end to City's last European campaign.

Fernando, the other principal summer signing who has added immediate and immense balance, is injured.

Two symmetrically imperfect sides then, with City knowing that a win at the outset could spare them the ordeal of arduous opposition the other side of the group stage.

Kompany made the observation that winning the Champions League for the first time would be easier than breaking the hex to clinch City's first Premier League title in 2012.

"Before we won the league it was more difficult to believe we could do it than it is now with the Champions League," he said.

"My experience of the Champions League is that it's not more difficult to go to the end but everything has to be perfect. The Premier League is just a ferocious battle to the end. Eventually it will happen our way."

A wise and calculated summer in the transfer market does makes this a better side than the one which fell to Barcelona.

"There is always a sign of us growing stronger," Kompany correctly concluded before taking his leave.

A moment is here to be seized.

Belfast Telegraph


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