Raheem Sterling’s British transfer record move from Liverpool to Manchester City ultimately came as no surprise when the £49 million move was announced on Tuesday, but Sterling will not be the answer to solving the Citizen’s Champions League conundrum.
The Sheikh Mansour takeover of September 2009 revolutionised Manchester City, for better and for worse. The supporters’ reputation suffered immeasurably, as did the Sheikh’s bank account: £18m was spent on Jo from CSKA Moscow, £12m was splurged on Wayne Bridge and another £14m was coughed up for Liverpool’s Craig Bellamy.
You may have laughed at the mention of the fans’ reputation, but those loyal to the club will remember 30,000 watching from the Maine Road stand back in the old version of League One.
To describe Manchester City’s various managers since the takeover as spendthrifts would likely be the understatement of the decade. £32.5m spent on Brazilian Robinho, £17.5m on Roque Santa Cruz as well as £22m on Joleon Lescott. The inflated fees clearly did not reflect their worth, nor did it provide the club with players who had vast experience of European football, Robinho aside – and he was a failure.
What Mark Hughes – the manager at the time – had done was find a short-term solution to literally jump-start Manchester City’s bid to break into the top four and succeed in Europe. Unfortunately, in signings like Wilfred Bony, current manager Manuel Pellegrini has adopted the same tactic.
Astute moves, such as the £26m capture of David Silva from Valencia, in addition to a simply exquisite £37m move for Sergio Agüero, need to be replicated in order for City to be able to compete with Europe’s best.
Of course, as expected City broke through into the top four in 2011-12, and have subsequently won the league title twice, as well as the FA Cup once in 2011, but as of yet they remain without any real progress made in the Champions League.
Their debut on the big stage threw them into the deep end with Villareal, Napoli and Bayern Munich in the same group as the Blues. Opening with a draw against the Italians, they faced Bayern Munich and were brushed aside 2-0. Consecutive victories over Villareal (2-1, 0-3) gave Roberto Mancini’s team hope, but an Edinson Cavani brace in a 2-1 reverse in Naples all but confirmed their exit from the competition.
An impressive 2-0 win over Bayern in the final game was not enough, as Napoli’s 2-0 win in Spain meant that City would bow out into the Europa League, where they would lose to Sporting Lisbon on the away goals rule in the round of 16.
The following season was a catastrophe. With Fernandinho the only impressive signing, City were placed in a group with Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax. Understandably hard fixtures against Los Blancos and Die Borussen, but for the squad that Manchester City possessed, third place was easily achievable. Beginning with a devastatingly late loss to Madrid, a Mario Balotelli penalty only just stopped a home defeat at the hands of Dortmund.
They failed to beat Ajax entirely, losing 3-1 in the Netherlands with the home game ending all square after Mancini’s men had fallen to a two-goal deficit. A predictable draw against Real came prior to an underwhelming defeat in Germany. Manchester City had finished bottom of their group.
Roberto Mancini was duly sacked after Manchester United won the title, and so Manuel Pellegrini stepped in. Here was a man enriched with experience in the very competition that seemed to be his new club’s Achilles heel, after impressing with Villareal and Malaga. Impressively, he won the Premier League at the first attempt, snatching the title from Liverpool, but again the Blues faltered.
Credit where it is due, Pellegrini did manage to escape the group stage, albeit with an easier group than the previous two seasons, placed again with Bayern Munich alongside Viktoria Plzen and CSKA Moscow. Despite an opening group game defeat due to both an incredible Bayern and their lacklustre opponents, City won all five of their remaining games.
However, as you probably remember, Manuel Pellegrini displayed his mathematical skills, or lack thereof in the final tie against Bayern. Leading 2-0, Pellegrini insisted on sitting back – where another goal would see his team top the group and avoid a test against a mammoth European heavyweight.
A mammoth tie is what City obtained, against Spanish giants Barcelona. The Catalans were held off for nearly an hour in the first leg at the Etihad before Martin Demichelis brought down Lionel Messi and a controversial penalty was awarded. As expected, the Argentinian converted, and Dani Alves finished through Joe Hart’s legs in the dying seconds to give Barcelona an enormous advantage, thanks to the away goals rule. A 2-1 reverse in Spain again stopped City short of progress.
Last season magnified the team’s frailties to a much larger extent. Having to face Bayern Munich in the group stage for the second time in three years was unfortunate to say the least, but extremely shaky performances in both games against Roma and CSKA Moscow highlighted the need for an abrupt shake-up of operations at the Etihad. The knock-out stage reintroduced a mirror of the 2013/14 tie between City and Barcelona. This time round, their opponents had a better manager in Luis Enrique and a terrifying attack, containing a £75m machine named Luis Suarez.
The Uruguayan tore a familiar adversary to shreds, scoring two within half an hour to bear a dent in Manchester City’s hopes of success on a platform outside the Premier League. Sergio Agüero did get a consolation, but a 2-0 collapse in the second-leg condemned City to yet another exit.
Their endeavours in the Champions League fall short of what is required in every season of participation. One could argue that being placed in a group with Bayern Munich or facing Barcelona in the last 16 twice is not something that can be avoided, yet this is a problem of the club’s own making.
The UEFA coefficient system is determined “by the results of clubs in the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League over the previous five seasons”. Manchester City’s current rank, at 16th, means that unless they reach say the semi-finals of the Champions League, they will remain in pot 2 and face the likes of Bayern in the group stage.
Be able to improve in the competition, and you will see a Pot 1 placement, where it is more likely the club will qualify for the knock-out stages and also top their qualifying group, resulting in an easier tie in the next round.
Signings like Sterling and Bony will not see the club in Pot 1. They will undoubtedly help, but a player of world class proportions and essentially boasting European experience at its most glorious is what’s needed. Players like Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba and Marco Reus, just for examples, are craved by the fans for the City team as a benchmark for European success. All three players mentioned have played in the Champions League final, and what City lack in abundance is players who have never experienced what it is like at that level.
Maybe it is the mindset of the players having failed so many times. Lacking confidence against the teams competing in Europe is a killer from the first whistle. Perhaps Pellegrini cannot fathom why his players cannot seem to lift themselves off the step.
With his successes at previous clubs, it is a mystery as to why the manager struggles with Manchester City, a team that offers more resources to Pellegrini than he has ever had available. With such financial backing, Champions League progress should not be an issue.
In 2015/16 a breakthrough is imperative. This season will be pivotal for the Chilean in that sense.
Callum Connolly, Pundit Arena