Roberto Mancini's Manchester City face test of real progress at Bernabeu against Real Madrid
'We can win the Champions League' says City manager – but won't predict when
At the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, they advertise a "tour of trophies" because they are the kind of club who have a collection of silverware so extensive that you need to physically walk around it. Nine European Cups, 32 league titles, 18 Spanish Cups, the list goes on – they cannot be fully appreciated by a glance or squeezed into one cabinet or caught in a single camera frame. At Real Madrid, to comprehend the club's success, one requires a tour.
This is the company to which Manchester City – three league titles, five FA Cups, one Cup Winners' Cup – aspire and for Roberto Mancini's team it is no longer simply good enough to share the stage with the biggest clubs in Europe, it is time that they competed with them.
As a start to City's second Champions League campaign, their first as champions of England under Sheikh Mansour's ownership, tonight's opener against Real represents a wonderful opportunity to test their progress. Even if they are defeated there is scope to remedy their situation, although this game comes with the warning that there are no easy points in Group D.
For Uefa and their stale, revenue-driven Champions League group stage format, which so often fizzles out in terms of interest when the seeded teams take control early on, Group D is a god-send this year. City, Real Madrid, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund are all reigning champions of big football nations and the competition will be fearsome from the very start.
A draw for City tonight would be an excellent way to start the competition. Last season they drew their first game at home to Napoli, lost in Munich to Bayern and as the Carlos Tevez affair erupted they still beat Villarreal home and away before that crucial away defeat to Napoli. Their haul of 10 points was the most a team has ever earned and gone out the competition.
In Manchester United's second season in the Champions League, 1994-1995, they picked up the current equivalent of eight points (it was only two for a win in those days) and went out in third place in their group behind Gothenburg and Barcelona. In their second season in the competition, 1999-2000, Arsenal also finished third in their group with eight points behind Barcelona and Fiorentina.
A similar performance from City this season, even allowing for the difficulty of their group, will be regarded as a failure. There are reasons for that, not least Mansour's extensive investment, although you could argue that he is simply compensating for years of being outside the virtuous circle of Champions League qualification. Tottenham Hotspur raised the bar by reaching the 2010-2011 quarter-finals in their first season as did Chelsea in their first appearance in the competition in 1999-2000.
More than anyone, however, it is City and their own vaulting ambition from which the pressure flows. Mancini's analogy at his press conference last night that while once the club were the equivalent of a Fiat Cinquecento now they are a Ferrari and the expectations have changed accordingly, demonstrated that he recognises what is at stake.
Mancini said: "We have a good team and we have played together for a few years, but I am sure we will win the trophy in the future. I don't know when, but at some stage, yes, the club will win."
With two wins and two draws in the league, as well as the Community Shield victory – referred to by David Silva as one of the club's "three titles" won in the last two seasons – City have started comfortably, if not in spectacular fashion. Contrast that to Real's woeful start, by their own standards, of one win in four league games and it is not hard to see where the pressure is focused come tonight.
Jose Mourinho's criticism of his players yesterday, comparing them unfavourably to his Internazionale team that won the Champions League in 2010, was a reminder of the kind of tensions that affected Mancini at the most difficult stages of last season. The competition between the two men is obvious: Mancini had never been past the quarter-finals of the Champions League with Inter before Mourinho went on to win it with the same club.
Asked about Mourinho last night, Mancini replied bluntly: "We don't have a personal relationship. I met him two times, Porto v Lazio in the Europa League, I know because I met him in Milan, four or five times, but I know him as a manager."
The defeat to Bayern Munich last season, the closest City have come in the recent past to opponents of Madrid's prestige in the modern era, eventually proved crucial. "We played very well in the first 30 minutes, three chances to score, but if you don't score, it can be difficult and this game will be the same," Mancini said.
"If you get a chance, you have to score. A draw could be a good result, but our mentality is not to defend, we don't have that mentality. If you want to do well, you have to attack very well and play football."
Real have won 40 and drawn two of the first matches they have played at home in the group stages. But then they have never played a team of City's calibre at this stage. Mancini said last night that his striker Sergio Aguero, his key injury worry, was "not 100 per cent" but could potentially start. Silva, who signed a new five-year deal yesterday, said he was not certain if Madrid's latest run of bad form might "waken the beast in them".
Either way, tonight is no smooth introduction to their second season in the Champions League. "We want to do better this year,' said Mancini, and they will have to do it the hard way.
Key confrontations: Where the match will be won and lost
Cristiano Ronaldo v Vincent Kompany
With a phenomenal record of 151 goals in his 150 games in all competitions for Real Madrid, Ronaldo will be a constant threat to the City defence, cutting in from the left in his direct and powerful style. The City captain Kompany will have to time his tackles well to halt him, and not be dragged out of position.
Luka Modric v Yaya Toure
The recent £33m signing from Tottenham, Modric, is expected to get the nod ahead of Mesut Ozil for tonight's match in the middle of the front three of Real's midfield. The 27-year-old will punish City if he is allowed time on the ball and space in advanced positions, which Touré will aim to minimise. Touré will also look to dominate the centre of the pitch to start City on the attack.
Sami Khedira v David Silva
Buoyed by his new five-year contract, the former Valencia playmaker Silva will look to get in behind the space patrolled by the tireless Germany international to provide the cutting edge on the vast Bernabeu pitch. Khedira will have to keep a close eye on the movement of the astute 26-year-old, who created more goals in the Premier League than any other player last season.
Kick-off Tonight, 7.45pm, Bernabeu
TV ITV 1.
Referee D Skomina (Sloven)
Odds Real 4-6; draw 14-5; Man City 4-1
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