Sam Wallace: It's no longer a case of whether or not Manchester City can win the Champions League… it is merely a matter of when

Talking Football

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The Independent Football

There comes a time in the life of every club with pretensions to establish themselves at the top of European football that a significant breakthrough must be made, regardless of the opposition or whatever obstacles have been placed in their path by the elite. As Old Trafford lies dark and empty on Champions League nights, this feels like the time for Manchester City to take that step into the competition’s latter stages.

They start on Wednesday night against Bayern Munich, the third time in four years they have been drawn against the German club, and enough this weekend to tip Manuel Pellegrini into that familiar discourse about the unfairness of the Uefa seeding system that has left City in the second tier and Arsenal still in the first pot.

He is right, of course, and even Uefa has come to see it his way. If City defend their Premier League title this season, next year they will find themselves rubbing shoulders with national champions in their pot, rather than in the group stage. They have come through one swingeing Financial Fair Play punishment, the kind of hurdle that Chelsea never had to clear when they spent fortunes to catch up with the traditional giants of Europe in the early Roman Abramovich days.

In 2011-12, City went out in the group stages with 10 points. Last season they took 15 points from 18 in the group, finished second in the head-to-head with Bayern, drew Barcelona and went out in the round of 16. City are a rich club, but nobody has made it easy for them. There comes a time, however, when for their own good they cannot allow themselves mitigating factors.

For much of the last six years since the Abu Dhabi takeover the story has been about how far City have come. Now more than ever it feels like time they faced in the other direction.

 

Ten years ago, as Bayern embarked on a double-winning season, City were staggering through the last few months of the Kevin Keegan era. Training sessions would often end with Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler lifting a drain lid near the clubhouse at Carrington and striking footballs at it the way a weekend golfer might fire a basket of balls at a solitary pin. Somewhere in the distance it would be possible to discern Keegan involved in an intensely competitive game of head tennis.

Even those of us who are relatively new to this job can recall Joe Royle attending press conferences at the old Maine Road sipping a can of Strongbow. Now when you join the queue outside the Etihad Stadium’s media entrance on a Champions League night, the front reception is lit up like the entrance for a film premiere and cars with blacked-out windows and VIP passes drop their guests just outside the crash barriers. Of course, none of the past will mean much to the likes of Sergio Aguero or Samir Nasri – what they know is that they have been part of the transformation of a club who were not on their radar pre-2008.

The past will always be there for City but with every season that goes by it feels less relevant. Champions of England again, the question is less about when they can win the Champions League and more how quickly it can be done.

Success in this competition owes much to the confidence it can be done as the fractional differences in the relative merits of the talent-laden squads at the elite level of the game. The margins are finer than ever: no side has won the Champions League two years in a row, much less set up the kind of dynasties that existed in previous decades. The competition is the preserve of a tiny number of clubs, but, between them, wide open.

Over the last 20 years it has been the case that the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona, Chelsea, Internazionale and the current Real Madrid side have made incremental progress towards winning the trophy before getting over the line. Only Arsenal, the beaten finalists eight years ago, fell away without quite reaching the peak.

When the competition was the European Cup and for the champions only, it was less of a slog against the biggest names and more of an exercise in managing the unfamiliarity and occasional injustices of playing all over a less homogenised European football landscape. Brian Clough’s experience with Derby County against Juventus in 1973, for instance, was one such hard lesson along the road.

Those problems have been washed out of the game by the uniformity of Uefa’s modern tournament with its harmonised refereeing standards and the transparency that blanket television coverage offers. Not all of it is better, certainly not the repetition of some group match-ups, but it offers the chance for progress to be made year on year.

Currently on the Mancunian Way there is just one billboard advertising European football on television, and it is all City. Not since the 1978-79 season, when City reached the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup and were eliminated by Borussia Mönchengladbach, have they been in Europe and United not. It was another 25 years until City were to return in the same competition, as reluctantly as any Uefa fair play award recipient. They were eliminated on away goals by Groclin Dyskobolia from Poland in the second round.

Alas, the intervening years have not been kind to Groclin who, in their current guise, are in their country’s seventh tier. City, on the other hand, are reaching the point when European nights like that goalless draw at home to the Polish side will just seem like a bad dream. Soon there will be a whole generation wondering whether you are talking about the same club. They will expect City to win Champions League titles, and with some justification.

Any new owners would have Tottenham in their debt

For all the problems that are associated with a long, troublesome quest to build a new stadium, Tottenham Hotspur have kept their debt low, one of the greatest – potentially the greatest – achievements of the Enic years under Joe Lewis and Daniel Levy. The financing for a new stadium would change that but the hope would be that, like the Emirates, it would eventually pay for itself.

As for Cain Hoy, the putative takeover party, one can only assume that any buyout of Spurs by them would involve borrowing money against the value of the club. Their chairman, Henry Silverman, is one of the 1980s founding fathers of private equity. The returns that the Glazers have made from their highly leveraged purchase of Manchester United has no doubt caught the attention of other would-be American sports investors and Spurs could make an attractive option for another leveraged buyout.

Early days yet, but private equity typically looks to sell on for a profit after about five years. Which would not give them long to resolve the issues at the heart of Spurs.

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