Third UCL meeting with Bayern is a sign of Man City's progress
In Manchester City's long and illustrious history, there has been a notably thin spread of seasons in which the club has pitted its wits against the best of European competition. Since a somewhat inauspicious start in continental battle way back in 1968-69 featuring a much-heralded, but ultimately embarrassingly brief, two-leg flirtation with disaster against Fenerbahçe, the club has been a relatively infrequent visitor to the fields of Europe.
Once that Malcolm Allison-inspired debacle had been shaken from the system, City did manage to progress the following season when they had the opportunity to venture forward in the now-defunct (and magnificently named) European Cup Winners' Cup, making it past Bilbao, Lierse, Académica de Coimbra and Schalke 04 to play the Poles of Gornik in a rain-lashed final in the Prater Stadium in Vienna. Thus, at only the second attempt, City had landed a European trophy.
This was to remain a long distance from setting a precedent, however. Indeed, the club has come close on only one other occasion, reaching the semifinals of the same competition the following year only to go out to those romantic continental foes from Chelsea -- after beating equally romantic Linfield, true ancient greats Honved and old friends Gornik in the previous rounds.
The rest of the '70s saw occasional participation but little success. In 1972, 1976 and 1977, the club stuttered out against the first opponents they came across -- Valencia, Juventus and a Boniek-inspired Widzew Lodz, respectively -- before hitting the trail properly in 1978-79, ironically during a season when everything was turning to dust and ashes in the League under Allison's second coming.
While City's domestic troubles brought a succession of dismal defeats to the likes of Southampton, Ipswich and Coventry, on continental fields FC Twente, Standard Liege and -- dramatically, brilliantly, conclusively -- AC Milan were all dispatched from that season's UEFA Cup before the mighty Borussia Monchengladbach turfed City out in the quarterfinals.
Those shaking their heads in disappointment as a slim and deadly Alan Simonsen masterminded City's exit in the Rhineland could scarcely have imagined that the club would not grace European competition again until 2003-04 and that, when they finally did reappear out of the gathering gloom and disbelief, it would be with two legs against the merry Welshmen of Total Network Solutions. With TNS duly flattened on a heavy aggregate score, City also lurched past the Belgians of Lokeren before falling rather hopelessly to another giant of silly names -- Dyskobolia Grodzisk of Poland -- in one fell swoop, making themselves the only club to play two sides who no longer exist in Europe in the same season.
This was the decade when City's European presence began to become a little more regular again, and, as the UEFA Cup staggered from one strange, enforced change to another, the 2008-09 season saw the Blues play nine different opponents without even threatening the winners' podium. EB Streymur of the Faroe Islands, the Danes of Mydtylland, Omonia Nicosia, Schalke, Paris Saint-Germain, Racing Santander, FC Twente, Copenhagen and Aalborg were all beaten before a close, raucous and heroic defeat to Hamburg ended Mancunian hopes in the rain and tears of the City of Manchester Stadium, as it was then known.
This campaign will be remembered fondly for delivering a fishing-boat trip to Torshavn from Aberdeen for some fans, plus three ties against Danish teams and a lopsided, five-team group involving one home game against some opponents and one away against others. It was not one of UEFA's better years.
Champions League group stage
A: Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Olympiakos, Malmo
B: Real Madrid, Basel, Liverpool, Ludogorets
C: Benfica, Zenit, Leverkusen, Monaco
D: Arsenal, Dortmund, Galatasaray, Anderlecht
E: Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, Man City, Roma
F: Barcelona, PSG, Ajax, APOEL
G: Chelsea, Schalke, Sporting, Maribor
H: Porto, Shakhtar, Athletic Bilbao, BATE
A year later City added the Romanians of FC Timisoara, Red Bull Salzburg, Lech Poznan, Aris Thessaloniki and Dynamo Kyiv to a lengthening and varied list of opponents.
And then came the Champions League. At last, after all those years steaming up the VIP windows from the outside and watching the great deeds of football's glitterati, City were invited to the top table. Fans rushed to dust down old European favours -- hats worn in Bilbao, pin badges bought in Gelsenkirchen and scarves from Vienna -- while practising eating vol-au-vents and odd-looking tapas. And then, a strange thing began to happen.
You might have noticed -- if you have managed to stay awake through this litany of European names big and small -- that City's sparse European pedigree has carried them far and wide, from the ice fields of northern Poland to the fishing grounds of the Faroes and back via the sun-kissed shores of Greece and Cyprus.
Four short years ago, Blues fans waited with bated breath for news of the club's Champions League opponents. Out they came, one by one from those funny little high-tech balls that refuse to be opened: Napoli, Villareal, Bayern Munich. Year two: Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax. What unmitigated, never-ending fun was had. Year three: Viktoria Plzen, CSKA Moscow and, oh, Bayern Munich again. Never mind, these things happen.
Now, in year four of City's continental renaissance, the gods of chance have deemed it normal to throw City together with Roma -- oh, and what have we here -- CSKA Moscow again and, you cannot be serious, Bayern Munich yet again. In four years of trying to avoid Bayern, City have drawn them three times. In two successive years, the club has drawn CSKA Moscow. In the previous 40-odd years of combat, only Juventus, FC Twente, Gornik and Schalke have been met more than once.
The Champions League is a safe haven, a kind of closed shop for the big guns of Europe to get their financial fix each year. Indeed, it is geared toward helping the regular giants from each major league to make it to -- and through -- the groups each season, whether they are actually champions of their national league or sneak in by dint of perpetual fourth-place finishes. Oft has been the snide comment that watching Barcelona slug it out with Milan every year really a happy spectacle doth not make.
Fans want variety. Excitement. Colour. Drama.
For those of Manchester City, all wide-eyed in this esteemed company, anything at all is a bit of an adventure. The club's official line, however, is that further progress on this grand continental scale is the yearly target, but, as far as many of the supporters are concerned, this is an adventure designed to also gradually fritter away 40 years of hurt and embarrassment. The bigger the challenge, the better. Just to see "our City" going at it hammers and tongs with Real and Barcelona brings the hairs on the back of the neck to an upright position.
But today's draw is just taking things too far.
Bayern Munich. Certainly, they don't come any bigger than that, but three times in four years. Soon, the denizens of Rusholme and Gorton will know the contours of the Ludwigstrasse or the Rosenkavalierplatz better than they know the amble home from the Red Lion. Whether that is a good thing or not we will only know in January, if City's name is present in one of those hermetically sealed draw balls for the knockout round.