Another round of Champions League fixtures dominates the midweek, with them a familiar uneasy feeling sets in for Manchester City.
It is a tournament they have perpetually struggled in and once again it has knocked them out of their stride. Suddenly a visit to the perceived easy team in the group, Borussia Mönchengladbach, isn’t so appealing.
Before the Juventus game City had started the season in fine form. Five games from five in the Premier League, including the demolition of current champions Chelsea and a clean sheet in every result. Facing a Juventus team that had lost several keys players from the one that had reached last year’s final was a task approached with enthusiasm.
Then the Champions League spell, one so often cast over the Etihad, worked its evil magic once again. The team that had been lively and dangerous in the Premier League, exuding confidence with swagger, was returned to its unsure naïve European variant.
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City actually took the lead after being wasteful with chances. Had it stayed 1-0 the argument could have been they’d shown maturity and paced themselves correctly. The reality was the experienced Italians were the ones controlling the game. They knew how to absorb pressure, slow City down, and most importantly, be clinical when the chances emerged.
Since that 2-1 defeat at home to The Old Lady, City have only won in a League Cup game to Sunderland. Hopes that the easy victory there would restore confidence and reignite the team back to the start of season form were proven to be unfounded. Instead they got turned over 4-1 by Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Two offsides may have played a part in that, but only slightly. The biggest reason is the quality City has compared to what they think is there.
It’s now clear some of the big names at the Manchester club aren’t big game players. Without Silva they become a much more ordinary side. The weak areas of the side never more magnified when playing in Europe’s elite competition. Any bad luck that can be ascribed to drawing Barcelona twice in the second round doesn’t mask lacklustre and painful group stage games. They never look like a side equal to the best in the Champions League, rather, a team out of its depth lacking cohesion.
After the game on Saturday the last thing Manuel Pellegrini would have wished for was another awkward foray into Champions League football. There have only been fleeting glimpses that this unit has the fortitude and tactical intelligence to excel in the competition. Facing the team everyone expects City to take six points from makes it an even harder task.
Anything less than a convincing victory will raise the doubts further that this incarnation of Manchester City can ever crack the puzzle that is European football. It has the potential for The Citizens to take a tentative approach and they’re yet to look relaxed in UEFA’s top club tournament.
The psychological effects aside, they also face a deepening injury crisis. Demonstrating how the game isn’t played on paper, a pre-season second eleven that people touted as nearly equal now appears far inferior. Not being able to select Zabaleta, Kompany, Silva, Yaya Toure, Mangala, Bony and Delph would be enough to harm any match day squad. Throw into the mix a Sergio Aguero that appears far from being match fit with a mix of new players trying to settle in and problems are bound to arise.
City won’t get much sympathy having nine first team players out; people will just point to the money they’ve spent. They look naïve now for not bringing in another striker. Bony doesn’t seem to fit the new system, and Aguero is guaranteed to be injured at some point during the season. There’s a feeling he could be at this moment in time but is labouring on.
With all these considerations it’s as if the arrival of another Champions League match has conspired against them. A competition they struggle in against a side that have won their last two games.
It could be a pivotal moment in Pellegrini’s time as boss, and for City’s season as a whole. If they find their stride after a few tough setbacks with so many key players out, they will rightly believe it can be a successful campaign. This period of hardship will toughen the team.
But the Champions League has never galvanised City and Pellegrini will fear another long lasting European hangover is inbound.