Roberto Mancini smiled when asked if a trip to the Britannia Stadium was good preparation for visiting the Bernabeu. "I think so," was his wry reply; the reality is that the 871 miles separating the two places might as well be a million in respect of the different type of challenge Manchester City will face against Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid, the Spanish champions.
If Saturday was City's Groundhog Day – their fourth successive 1-1 league draw at a battling, in-your-face Stoke side – their challenge now is to avoid a different kind of déjà vu as Mancini's men swap the Britannia's bacon butty for the finest jamon serrano of the Bernabeu.
City began last year's debut Champions League campaign in faltering fashion, with a home draw with Napoli and a 2-0 defeat at Bayern Munich, results that set the tone for a disappointing early exit. Now as then they find themselves in the toughest section – Group D also contains Borussia Dortmund and Ajax, both domestic champions – and Mancini, while maintaining that his side were unlucky to suffer elimination last term with 10 points, knows they must hit the ground running this time.
"The group stage is difficult like last year and we start again at a difficult ground against a top team," he said. "We should be ready for it to be very difficult. They have fantastic players. If we want to get a good result there we must play very well."
Mancini was speaking before Madrid's second defeat in four La Liga outings – 1-0 at Seville on Saturday night – but irrespective of Mourinho's men's shaky form, it is still a tough trip and the Italian added: "When you play Champions League every team is a top team, every game is difficult, but when you play Real or Barça they [have] won everything in history; it will be [extra] difficult."
Along with 3,500 fans, City's travelling party should include Gareth Barry, whose substitute appearance on Saturday was his first since he missed Euro 2012. Mancini also hopes to have Sergio Aguero available tomorrow and he sees a squad well equipped for the challenge. "I think we have 23 or 24 good players. We have good players with experience; they have played the Champions League, they know this atmosphere."
One player well acquainted with the Bernabeu atmosphere is Javi Garcia. The Madrid academy product, signed from Benfica last month, made an impressive debut at Stoke in central midfield alongside fellow new boys Maicon and Scott Sinclair. Garcia nodded City's equaliser and would have had a second but for Asmir Begovic's superb save from another header in the last minute. Indeed, but for Begovic, who also foiled Yaya Touré, and Ryan Shawcross's stunning final-kick, goal-line clearance from Edin Dzeko, City would have won this match. Still, Mancini conceded they would need "better defending" against Cristiano Ronaldo and company. Although they were unlucky that referee Mark Clattenburg failed to see Peter Crouch handle the ball as he smuggled it past both Joleon Lescott and Garcia before scoring, it was still a messy goal to concede and City remain without a clean sheet in 2012-13.
"It definitely hit my hand," admitted Crouch. He went on to offer a different interpretation than England manager Roy Hodgson of the pre-Euro 2012 events that have left him in international exile, saying he had not refused to go on standby for the squad, as Hodgson claimed last week. "It wasn't a case of being a standby, I think he wanted me to play in one of the friendlies and then go home. I'll be honest, I was disappointed not to be called up to the full squad."
Real league woes continue
Real Madrid continued their poor start to the defence of their La Liga title on Saturday, losing 1-0 at Seville for their second defeat in four league matches this season. The Spanish champions, who host Manchester City in the Champions League tomorrow night, went down to an early goal from Piotr Trochowski. The German international volleyed home after escaping the attentions of Angel di Maria. Real hit the woodwork twice, through Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos, but were unable to find an equaliser.
Booked: Man City Garcia.
Man of match Garcia.
Attempts on target: Stoke 3. MC 11.
Referee M Clattenburg (Co Durham).
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