Manchester City capable of exceeding expectations in Europe
Manchester City have claimed four major trophies in the past four seasons -- an impressive haul, irrespective of the amount of money invested during that period. Two Premier League titles, one FA Cup and one League Cup represents significant progress for a club that had previously won nothing since 1976.
Today's Champions League draw was of particular importance to City, however, because over the past three years they've flopped in Europe -- only once have they progressed to the knockout stage. Part of the problem, of course, was that they were a "pot three" side, and often handed a difficult draw.
Now starting the second pot, their draw hasn't been too much kinder. For the third time in four seasons, they've been drawn against Bayern Munich, arguably the competition's strongest side, as well as the most dangerous side in pot four: Roma. CSKA Moscow shouldn't present too many problems, but yet again City have a difficult path to the knockout stage -- where, realistically, they should be reaching every season.
City's first two Champions League campaigns, under serial European failure Roberto Mancini, saw them exit at the group stage. In the first year, City defeated Villarreal home and away, but the Spanish side was in disarray, and eventually relegated that season. City collected four points from the other four games, of which three came against an already-qualified Bayern side.
The following season was even worse -- no victories against Real Madrid, Ajax or Borussia Dortmund -- and while they qualified from last year's group under Manuel Pellegrini, they fell in the first knockout stage, unfortunately, against Barcelona.
Now, however, City have their best squad yet. Managers often speak about having two top-class options in every position, and in this respect, City's quality is absolutely extraordinary.
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
Perhaps this is most obvious at full-back. The "two quality players in each position" often means one absolutely top-class player, and then a younger, developing player happy to pick up experience and play the odd game here and there. Or perhaps a veteran, winding down and happy to be used when required.
City, on the other hand, have four players good enough to be Champions League regulars, all roughly near their peak. At right-back, Bacary Sagna has arrived to offer competition for Pablo Zabaleta -- they are 31 and 29 respectively, and both have appeared in the PFA Team of the Year.
On the left, there's Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov. At 29 and 28, neither are promising youngsters, nor are they fading veterans -- they're at their peak. With Zabaleta and Kolarov likely to start the majority of games, City have effectively plucked the first-choice full-back duo of Sagna and Clichy from Premier League rivals Arsenal, and simply strengthened their own backup XI. That, more than anything else, shows their incredible depth.
This situation at full-back is quite extraordinary. Often, that was the position in which teams took a risk, and had only three options. Sometimes a centre-back could move wide in an emergency, or a versatile player like Real Madrid's Alvaro Arbeloa or Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta could play on both flanks. Indeed, Zabaleta, Clichy and Sagna all have experience of switching sides. Not City, however. This, quite literally, is four excellent full-backs fighting for two places.
This takes into account just two positions, but summarises the situation. City's five significant summer signings arguably haven't improved the first XI on paper, but through increased competition and increased rotation, means City's first-teamers will be forced to work harder in training, and will be fresher thanks to more rest. Pellegrini can jot down a second-string XI that reads something like this: Willy Caballero; Sagna, Eliaquim Mangala, Matija Nastasic, Clichy; Fernando, Frank Lampard; Jesus Navas, Stevan Jovetic, James Milner; Alvaro Negredo.
There are caveats -- Nastatic may leave, Lampard is at the club for only a few months, Mangala will probably be a first-teamer by the end of the campaign. Nevertheless, it's a frighteningly good side that would probably challenge for a Champions League place in itself.
Of course, this puts huge pressure upon Pellegrini. It's not easy to keep 22 first-teamers happy when only 11 are guaranteed a start, and perversely the Chilean might hope to have two or three injury absences each week.
Imagine sitting down on a Friday afternoon with a fully fit squad, and having to inform five of the above players that they haven't even made the bench. Who would you let down? Perhaps Nastasic, maybe Lampard considering his short-term deal at the club. Everyone else would be flabbergasted not to make the 18-man squad.
More importantly, it means that anything short of a genuine challenge in the Champions League would be a failure with this squad. Two years ago, City attempted a similar transfer campaign, bringing in the likes of Javi Garcia, Maicon, Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell as backups. It didn't work, because none of the quartet were truly good enough and, aside from Maicon, offered little European Cup know-how.
Now, Sagna, Lampard, Mangala, Fernando and Caballero bring considerable experience of the European Cup knockout stage, and they also represent different tactical options. Fernando, in particular, is the tough-tackling defensive midfielder City have lacked since Nigel de Jong's departure, and will be crucial away in Europe as a specialist holder. Yaya Toure can move forward, and City can beef up their midfield.
It's also worth remembering that Pellegrini has a good European track record, taking Villarreal to the semifinals in 2005-06 and Malaga to the quarterfinals two years ago. Interestingly, both clubs were making their Champions League debuts that season.
City, however, shouldn't be seen as Champions League underdogs. They're no longer newcomers to this competition, and have considerable experience throughout the side.
Again, however, this difficult draw means they'll struggle to finish ahead of Bayern, and second place in the group could mean Real Madrid or Barcelona in the second round. The more often this happens, however, the less City can blame luck of the draw -- with this squad, they should be capable of exceeding expectations in Europe.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.