On Tuesday evening at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester City supporters groaned as they watched a movie seen too many times in recent years. The Premier League champions threw their hands up in disgust as Robert Lewandowsi soared to head home the go-ahead goal for Bayern Munich on the stroke of half-time. Going a goal down to the German giants is nothing to be ashamed about these days, but the circumstances under which it happened were frustrating beyond belief.
In the 20th minute, City received a godsend when Mehdi Benatia hacked down Sergio Aguero in the penalty area. The Moroccan was sent off for his troubles and the Argentine stepped up to the spot, converting to give City a 1-0 lead. In a crucial Champions League game, City were in the ascendancy – something that’s been a rarity in the contemporary era of heavy spending at Eastlands. But by half-time, the Citizens had crumbled in the face of a 10-man Bayern team unfazed by their numerical disadvantage.
The despondent mist lifted from the Etihad in the final five minutes of the match, however. as Aguero struck twice in a faith-restoring magical turnaround. Yet the cold hard truth is that City continue to face difficulty in the Champions League. On the final match day of the group stage, they’ll have to go to Rome and get a positive result against a talented Roma side to progress to the knockouts.
Failing to get through means City would be eliminated in the group stafe from Europe’s elite competitions for the third time in their first four attempts. Only last season’s unsuccessful round of 16 would be the exception. City have it all to do at the Stadio Olimpico in under two weeks’ time, with their Champions League hoodoo alive and well despite the midweek victory over Bayern Munich.
So with City’s backs against the wall ahead of the upcoming decisive tilt in the Eternal City, following are the top 10 issues with the Premier League title-holders in the Champions League.
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10 FFP Sanctions
Back in May, City were handed the dubious distinction of being the first club to be sanctioned under Financial Fair Play regulations alongside fellow nouveau-riche giants Paris Saint-Germain. Europe's football governing body doled out a conditional £49 million fine to the Premier League winners - effectively limiting their spending power in the transfer market - and also capped City's Champions League squad at 21 players, down from the 25 men clubs are permitted to register under normal circumstances. Alvaro Negredo became a casualty of this cap as he was loaned out to Valencia, while City net spent £58 million less on improving the side than the year before. The sanctions haven't necessarily dealt too significant a blow to City's ambitions in the Champions League, but are another distraction that has compounded the issues already present.
9 Low UEFA Coefficient
Past success in Europe goes a long way towards helping clubs continuing to prosper in continental competition. In this case, not because of mentality – but because of seeding. Qualified clubs are drawn into quartets for the group stage from four pots based on UEFA coefficients, with pot one the strongest and pot four the weakest. Coefficients are based on past performances in European competition and City continue to put themselves in a difficult position. They barely squeaked into pot two this year, drawing Bayern Munich from pot one. The longer City flounder in Europe, the longer they will continue to face incredibly difficult opposition in the group stage – potentially compromising their chances of progressing.
8 Lacking Home Support in Europe
There are few things that get football fans as juiced up as hearing the Champions League anthem blare over the tannoy system at their side’s ground. City supporters are no different, but a lack of prosperity in Europe seems to have dulled their enthusiasm. The Etihad outfit fell well short of selling out the stadium when Roma came to town in September, while tickets were still available for Tuesday's Bayern Munich match on the morning of the game. The atmosphere has been noticeably more subdued in comparison to that at City’s home Premier League ties. Having the faith of fans that the club can do the business in Europe as well is crucial, but it’s up to the team to show they’re capable of getting it done after years of disappointment.
7 Investment Behind Team Inviting Expectations
Where there’s a massive amount of money being spent, the prevailing idea becomes that a proportional amount of trophies should be flowing in the door. Since City were taken over by their Emirati benefactors in 2008, two Premier League titles, an FA Cup triumph and the League Cup have all arrived at the Etihad. Yet City haven't even seen the quarter-finals of the Champions League, unavoidably a bare minimum expectation for the champions of England. The ownership group’s patience is undoubtedly wearing thin as City’s frailty in Europe has become a household crack in England and abroad. The unfathomable investment in the squad mandates that City move in the direction of becoming a force the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, who flex their muscle at all levels of the game. Consistently unmet expectations for City in Europe have caused tension from top to bottom at the club, complicating matters and making the task even tougher.
6 Banishing the Ghosts of Old Failures
While investment invites expectations on its own, players can also be bound to the psychological prison of their past shortcomings. Each player experiences the broad range of competitions in football a different way, certain individuals being more naturally suited to some. City's squad seem to live in a world where there's a sort of personal acceptance that they can't achieve at the same level in the Champions League, despite being a juggernaut in a Premier League that is fiercely competitive these days. Forgetting failures is no easy task, but Pellegrini and his back room staff need to find a way to free the minds of the players. Otherwise, they will continue to be haunted by the past and the process of turning City into a full-fledged European superpower will be elongated further.
5 Under-performance From Managers
Certain managers excel in European competition. Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti is one such example, while Jose Mourinho’s Champions League record speaks for itself. The Portuguese replaced Roberto Mancini at Inter in 2008 due to the latter’s lack of continental success, with the Italian moving to City. Mancini failed to turn around his disappointing Champions League record in Manchester. Manuel Pellegrini of course replaced Mancini last summer at City, having done well in Europe with some of Spain’s less fashionable clubs earlier in the managerial career. So far, the Chilean hasn’t had the desired impact. He finally got City out of the group stage last season, only to fall to Barcelona at the next hurdle. Pellegrini is still under pressure to show he can take a big club deep into the Champions League and hasn’t made things any easier for himself this time around.
4 Difference Between Domestic and European Style
The Premier League is physical by nature, a place that players like Yaya Toure, Edin Dzeko and Fernando flourish. European football is an entirely different animal, where the technical aspects of the game hold a higher degree of influence on results than in the English top flight. City's own Gael Clichy pointed out the difference earlier this month and his team-mates would do well to take note of his words. Pellegrini's men often seem ill-equipped to play in a manner that will bring success in Europe, lacking that different gear that players at other clubs around the continent seem to have. It's a problem that has persisted year on year for City, even as other English clubs have been able to alter their style to suit Champions League participation in contemporary times.
3 Naive Tactical Decisions
No doubt about it, Manchester City are able to impose their will in the Premier League. Look no further than least season’s domestic title and a 60.2% possession average in the English top flight this season. In the Champions League, however, it’s been a different story. City have suffered from a lack of control over proceedings at times. When Manuel Pellegrini has played two men up front, sacrificing a midfielder in the process, City have found themselves outgunned in the center of the park. Roma were able to take the game to City at the Etihad in September for 60 minutes, for this reason. Likewise, City drew away against CSKA Moscow and lost at home to the Russian champions as Pellegrini opted to play with a 4-4-2 formation on both occasions. The Chilean must adjust his tactics based on this evidence, as City have suffered from not being properly set up to cope with the opposition in Europe.
2 Lack of Focus
City's Champions League campaign this term is littered with examples of players switching off. Jerome Boateng's last-gasp winner for Bayern Munich in the opening group stage game was avoidable. The Citizens then failed to hammer home an early advantage against Roma, second best after going up 1-0 inside five minutes. Pellegrini's men followed this up by letting a 2-0 lead against CSKA Moscow slip, leaving the Arena Khimki with a draw. Back in Manchester, they fought back from an early deficit against the Russians, only to concede what would be the winner in only the 34th minute. Staying mentally strong is everything in Europe, where every challenge is that much more ferocious and mistakes are ruthlessly punished. City cannot carry on allowing themselves to tune out with such regularity, or they will pay the price with yet another early exit from the Champions League.
1 Not Making Use of Winning Pedigree in Squad
There's nothing like the feeling of having been at the top to help players propel themselves there once again - taking their team-mates along with them. The fact is that the current City squad contains men who know what it is like to succeed in the upper echelons of the game. David Silva is a World Cup-winner and two-time European Champion with Spain. Sergio Aguero and Martin Demichelis returned to City at the beginning of the season having taken Argentina to the final of the World Cup in Brazil. Vincent Kompany has won four major honors during his time with Manchester City. Yaya Toure tasted Champions League glory with Barcelona. And don't forget on-loan Frank Lampard, who picked up every piece of silverware possible during his legendary 13-year stint at Chelsea. City have soldiers in their ranks with a winning pedigree. It's about time they figure out how to make use of it in confronting foes who don't play their football on English soil on a weekly basis.
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