Big-spending Manchester City can break the Champions League status quo

The leading clubs take only a polite interest in the draw for the Champions League group stage since their eyes are on the knockout phase of a tournament in which they have built up such expertise.

Big-spending Manchester City can break the Champions League status quo Manchester City's reaction, however, would have been one of excitement. They have been in the European Cup before, of course, but few care to dwell on an elimination by Fenerbahce on 2 October 1968.

That era feels different in more than just its distance in time. The contemporary City are just third seeds this season, but the transformation of the club, with those huge means, is being accomplished. Manchester United meet Benfica, the side they defeated in the 1968 final, but all the reminiscences cannot give the encounter this season such grandeur. Nor will Old Trafford be inflamed by the prospect of Basel and Romania's Otelul Galati taking the field.

Arsenal have serious work before them, with Marseille and Borussia Dortmund to meet as well as Olympiakos. Chelsea, for their part, will be respectful of Bayer Leverkusen, Valencia and Genk. It is intriguing, too, that Juan Mata has just come to Stamford Bridge from Valencia.

Nonetheless, the mind turns most keenly to City. They have clashes to come with Bayern Munich, Villarreal and Napoli. The mind already turns to Roberto Mancini's preparations to blunt the menace of the Bundesliga team. Bayern were most effective in the their 3-0 aggregate win over Zurich in a qualifier, as they ought to be with the presence of Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger on the books.

The links with City are extensive, with former players such as Daniel van Buyten and Jérôme Boateng in their squad. For all the wealth now taken for granted at Eastlands, the fixture with Bayern will still excite crowd, team and proprietor. The contrast is great with last season's efforts that saw City knocked out 2-1 on aggregate by Dynamo Kyiv in the obscurity of the last 16 of the Europa League. This season, yet more money has been spent to give City an excitement and incisiveness that augurs well. Should Carlos Tevez be unable to leave, even he may see new cause for committing himself to the task for at least a while.

Everything seems to be changing for City and the brightness they have with Sergio Agüero, for instance, on the pay roll implies that the Champions League cannot be presented as a "learning experience". The footballers are paid so much and have such respectable track records that City cannot be seen as innocents abroad, if they ever were classified in those terms. Mancini, for his part, is so well versed in Serie A matters that he would have taken particular note of Napoli, even if Villarreal merit his respect as well.

Napoli have been dynamic under the management of Walter Mazzarri, who took the post in the autumn of 2009 before directing the club to the elite European tournament. The individuals on the books awaken interest, particularly since the Uruguay forward Edinson Cavani took a bold and potentially dangerous step in leaving Palermo for Napoli. After that, his cold-bloodedness was seen to be as marked in his career as it is in his penalty area work.

Sir Alex Ferguson will not mind in the slightest if the scrutiny and stress fall on City. Setting aside the nostalgia when people once more discuss Alex Stepney's save from Eusébio in 1968 that paved the way for his side to win the final in extra-time, United cannot be too anxious when one of their challengers, Otelul Galati, champions of Romania, are making their debut in the tournament.

The Champions League continues to be an unfulfilled and intense ambition for Chelsea, all the more so because of that anguished defeat to Manchester United in 2008. One of the reasons for André Villas-Boas lay in his impact when securing last season's Europa League for Porto, so establishing himself as the youngest manager, at the age of 33, to take one of the principal European trophies.

It is useful in any sport to be among the leading pack, but the Champions League reminds us of just how thoroughly some clubs have set themselves apart. It is a long time since the tournament had an air of mystery clinging to it. The seedings for the group phase were an expression of raw power.

In the top tier, Chelsea and Arsenal alone have yet to win the competition. Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Porto and Internazionale have not just taken the European Cup but done so on more than one occasion. Wealth undoubtedly helps but tradition, too, appears to have an impact since rich owners do not seem able to buy that status immediately.

Roman Abramovich came very close when Chelsea lost the 2008 final to United in a penalty shoot-out, but those sides with a rich heritage are frequently able to draw on it as if it were a fund suddenly available at the decisive moment. The renowned names will be confident, but City's means and purpose mark them as a force committed to cracking open the status quo of the Champions League.

This article has been amended since first publication

Powered by article was written by Kevin McCarra, for The Guardian on Thursday 25th August 2011 21.20 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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