Tuesday, September 12, 2017

TO THE COALFACE

1993-94 Pre-season friendly: City 2-4 Feyenoord. Gary Flitcroft in action against future manager Peter Bosz
As City prepare to launch their 2017-18 assault on European football’s top prize, manager Pep Guardiola and his staff will be well aware of the pressure facing them to make serious advances towards the oft-stated designs of the club’s ambitious owners.

The money lavished on clear player upgrades this summer speaks volumes for the ambition of Guardiola, the club and the owners. Champions League success evidently ranks as highly as winning the Premier League.
Despite a sticky start in the competition, when tough draws came thick and fast, City’s steady progress since 2008 means the club is now in a good position to press on in its attempts to beat the semifinal reached in 2015-16. That match, woefully tossed away without the semblance of a proper fight against Real Madrid represents City’s only foray beyond the round of 16 so far.
City were passive-aggressive in Madrid in 2015-16
Although City are now the most consistent of England’s representatives in this competition, since Arsenal’s belated failure to qualify, they must push on to convince that they are anything other than slightly green and hopeful challengers.

The might of Real Madrid, Bayern, Barcelona and Juventus awaits them in the latter rounds and, to stand a chance against their like, City must put in a convincing pre-Christmas stint in the group stage.

Starting with this week’s tricky-looking tie in De Kuip to play a resurgent Feyenoord side, City have once again been pitched into a group that looks extremely even. Napoli and Shakthar Donetsk are hardly mugs when it comes to continental competition and City will need to repeat their league form to progress.

Feyenoord have started their domestic season even better than City with four straight wins that see them out in front of the pack in the Dutch Eredivisie. Having eclipsed Ajax last season, the Rotterdammers will be keen to impress on their return to the big stage. This will be their first game in the Champions League since 2002.

Programme cover from City v FC Twente, UEFA Cup 1978-79. (1-1 away, 3-2 home)


City European history against Dutch sides is short, having played FC Twente home and away in 1978 and 3-2 again in the lop-sided group format of 2008 when only a home game was played against the same side. That was the weird season City played 16 ties just to get to the quarter-final stage, where Hamburg was a step too far. Trips to the Faroe Islands and three games against Danish opposition (Copenhagen, Aalborg and Mydtjylland) made it the oddest season on record for City on the continent.
As far as the Champions League is concerned, the story is equally brief: Ajax home and away and memories of a crushing failure in Roberto Mancini’s last season of 2012-13.

Having lost unluckily in Madrid against Real (2-3), City had been extremely fortunate to draw at home to a rampant Borussia Dortmund – they would go on to contest the Wembley final with Bayern that season --and were then faced with two matches back-to-back against the Dutch champions, which would decide whether they had a chance of progressing or not.

In those two matches everything went wrong, with City well beaten in Amsterdam (1-3) after leading through Samir Nasri’s opener and pegged back to 2-2 at the Etihad, thus putting an early lid on their ambitions for another season. Those were also certainly happier times for Ajax boss Frank de Boer, enjoying the kind of stage and backing palpably lacking at the more prosaic surrounds of Crystal Palace this autumn.
Curiously, given Guardiola's start this season with a three-man back line, Mancini also opted for a similar set-up at the Ajax Arena, a shape criticised by right back Micah Richards after the game, who stated he and his team mates had not had enough time to master the new formation.
"The players just want to play. It's a hard system because we're not used to it but I think the players prefer a 4-4-2 but he's the manager and we do what he says." -  Micah Richards
The 1-3 final score in Amsterdam represented the biggest defeat City had tasted in competitive European history until last season’s dismantling at the Camp Nou (0-4). In fact the amount of goals scored both for and against in last season’s tournament will be cause for concern for Guardiola and his staff. A total of A total of 24 goals were scored and 16 conceded in City’s 10 competitive games, which included a play-off drubbing of Steaua Bucharest (5-0), another five goal haul against Monaco (5-3), a big win against Borussia Monchengladbach (4-0), a thrillingly entertaining draw at Celtic (3-3) and the afore-mentioned drubbing in Barcelona.
City’s 5-0 thrashing of Liverpool last weekend points to a season, where even more goals are on the cards, but Guardiola will be keen to staunch the flow at the other end. Another match with a big 5 in it features a link to this game. Feyenoord coach Gianni van Bronkhurst was in the Arsenal side that cantered to a 5-1 win at City in 2003.

Programme cover: pre-season friendly 2003-4 in Aarhus
While all the goals were flashing in last season's Champions League campaign, one thing remained stable: City's inability to get an away win. This now totals seven games without a win away from home in the Champions League. While away draws are fine if they are paired consistently with home wins, it is a run Guardiola will want to put an end to before it gets any more noteworthy.

With injury doubts once again circling around captain Vincent company and Nicolas Otamendi’s woeful lack of pace shown up by the roasting he got from Mohamed Salah, the Catalan’s insistence on three at the back and gung-ho attacking may be tempered on this occasion.
Away games in European competition are perhaps not the best place to throw caution to the wind and a steady, successful start to the group stage is essential to take some of the pressure off, as the season hots up. Guardiola only has to look back to the fateful season when City last played Dutch opposition to see how the club sank after a poor start. There was no coming back from the single point haul from the two Ajax games and City were eliminated at the group stage.

So the bejewelled story of Pep Guardiola and the Champions League starts another chapter. 25 years on from his glorious introduction as a young Barcelona player in the season the club finally won the tournament for the first time, it is perhaps time for the Catalan to add another personal milestone in his close relationship with the trophy. As far as City’s relationship with the Champions League goes, another tilt at the latter stages seems overdue. The long glittering road to Kiev begins this week at the coalface in Rotterdam.
CITY v. FEYENOORD PREVIOUS MEETINGS
1993-94 Pre-season friendly at Eastlands: City 2-4 Feyenoord
2003-04 Pre-season friendly in Aarhus, Denmark: City 2-1 Feyenoord



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