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John Brewin profile picture Posted by John Brewin
Aug 15, 2014

Man City's priority: Champions League

The ESPN FC panel break down Manchester City's chances of retaining their Premier League title.

Sheikh Mansour says very little in public about Manchester City, but November saw the Abu Dhabi billionaire owner break his silence.

"Ambitions are large and unlimited," he told a conference at the United Arab Emirates University.

That week, the club was celebrating a first-ever qualification for the Champions League knockouts. Manuel Pellegrini had completed the initial objective on the brief handed to him on succeeding Roberto Mancini.

A 5-2 home victory over CSKA Moscow had confirmed it on Nov. 5. Three days later, Mansour stated his aims as City proprietor: "Upgrading of the club to the ranks of those that can compete at tournaments in England and Europe."

As defending Premier League champions for a second time in three years, City more than compete in England. On the continent, however, the richest club in football are still far too much of a minor player.

Having reached the last 16, Pellegrini's team subsequently surrendered meekly to a Barcelona team that was far short of infallible.

Martin Demichelis took the blame for being red-carded in conceding the penalty with which Lionel Messi scored the first of two away goals, but too much respect had been paid to Barca, well short of the best with which they once ruled the competition.

Despite Manuel Pellegrini winning a Premier League title in his first season at Manchester City, the pressure is on for him to deliver Champions League success.

City -- and much of Eastlands that night, the stadium rather too quiet for this auspicious occasion -- seemed as if they were just glad to be part of the occasion. Either that or tension had cloying hold.

Pellegrini's postmatch manner on that February evening suggested bitter disappointment, which he subsequently took out on the Swedish match officials. As a consequence, he begins this season's group stage banned from the touchline for the first match, to complete a UEFA ban.

The governing body is also providing a unnavigable barrier to City's hopes of conquering Europe with a 49 million-pound financial fair play fine levied in May, along with a transfer cap and the reduction of usable squad members from 25 to 21.

City can no longer flash heavy cash to paper over cracks or augment their arsenal. FFP means they must juggle their current resources, or sell to buy.

The purchase of Eliaquim Mangala completed their summer shopping, while Javi Garcia's departure to Zenit St Petersburg was necessary once Fernando was bought from Porto, the same vendor Mangala arrived from.

Garcia would likely have been left off Pellegrini's Champions list from a squad that has too many foreign players to fill the quota. The signs are that Alvaro Negredo's continuing injury problems make him the odd man out as the 17th foreigner when only 16 are allowed.

Negredo might also have been sold if he had not broken his foot, but one of last season's heroes retreats to the shadows. Meanwhile, Frank Lampard's presence as a homegrown player -- grown almost two decades ago at West Ham and after 13 years at Chelsea -- does seem to confirm Arsene Wenger's suggestion that City are looking for ways around their FFP constraints.

PREMIER LEAGUE PREVIEWS

As we count down to kickoff on Aug. 16, ESPN FC previews all 20 teams in this season's competition. Can Burnley, QPR and Leicester stay up? Will the new signings of Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa and Adam Lallana help usurp Man City's crown? Will Manchester United get back on track under Louis van Gaal?

Reserve defender Dedryck Boyata's continuing presence at the club, and that of forgotten Micah Richards, both as "home-growns," suggest that Pellegrini must try to stage a better-heeled version of his exploits with Villarreal and Malaga, smaller clubs with thin squads whom he led into the furthest reaches of the competition.

A previous UEFA impediment had been the club's poor coefficient, meaning that City were handed arduous group-stage opponents after repeatedly being in the third pot of the draw.

Manchester City showed too much respect to Barcelona last year in the Champions League.

This year, those at the club are able to derive further joy from Manchester United's downfall, plus that of AC Milan, in bumping them up to Pot 2. That will mean that their draw is made far easier, though that in itself means that better results must be expected once City make it beyond the group stage.

Even allowing for their enforced financial straitjacket, City possess more than sufficient talent to be able to reach more distant horizons. Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero have all signed five-year deals, to remind of the talent resources already at the club.

Aguero's recurring injuries meant Barcelona did not face the forward that Javier Mascherano, speaking after the first leg, freely admitted they feared.

The Argentine limped through the first half in the Nou Camp, only to be removed at half-time. On the domestic stage, City eventually survived the loss of their striking talisman, making their title run-in all but without him, but could not in a competition that English clubs now struggle in.

The Champions League has provided City's oil-fired dream with its most jarring wake-up calls, not least in last year's group stage when Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich took them apart at Eastlands in October.

In gaining revenge on Bayern in a final group match, Pellegrini exposed himself to embarrassment when admitting he had got his sums wrong in failing to chase a margin of victory that would have won the group, and thus avoid the likes of Barcelona.

"Typical City," to conjure memories of the pre-Abu Dhabi club and Mancini's repeated foibles in Europe.

It is often difficult to recall how far City have come as a club in the short years since their 2008 takeover. A longer Champions League campaign is the key objective Pellegrini needs to meet, even if he and City must fight with one arm tied behind their back.

John Brewin

Based in London, from where he covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. He reported from the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and was formerly a senior editor of ESPNsoccernet.

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