Manchester City have qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in three attempts and will now take on Barcelona in the standout tie of the round. It’s a daunting prospect, but one City shouldn’t fear given the quality of football they have produced at times this season.
They managed 15 points in qualifying with a 100 percent away record, culminating in a fantastic win over Bayern Munich at the Allianz. It’s a result that sent a message to the rest of Europe, and Manuel Pellegrini will be hoping it breeds confidence amongst his players, who had often seemed tentative before his arrival.
Two seasons of group stage exits under former boss Roberto Mancini were threatening to scar City psychologically; a third early exit would have been catastrophic. But Manuel Pellegrini has ensured that monkey is now off City’s back, and they can look forward to a knockout tie with the world's biggest club.
It’s unlikely that City will have enough to go all the way and lift the trophy in Lisbon next May—there are more complete sides in the competition—but here we look at the areas City need to improve if they are to beat the odds and be successful in Europe.
City must resolve their goalkeeper situation
Most sides require a top-class, in-form goalkeeper if they are to be successful in the Champions League, and right now City have neither. Joe Hart has proven in the past that he has the attributes to be exceptional, but his form collapsed well over a year ago and has never really recovered. Before being dropped, his confidence was low and his performances were costing the team points.
His replacement, Costel Pantilimon, is neither a great goalkeeper nor a confident one, and it's highly doubtful he can lead City to glory in the biggest club competition in the world.
If the extended break manager Manuel Pellegrini is giving Hart works and he comes back mentally refreshed and at his best, then City don’t have an issue. The problem they have is that there is no guarantee that will happen, and Pellegrini and his staff are likely to have been weighing their options ahead of the next transfer window.
Signing a goalkeeper of the requisite quality in January who isn’t ineligible for the Champions League is an extremely difficult task, but ideally City need to find one who ticks all the boxes.
City must continue to attack
It’s clear for all to see where City’s strength lies. Pellegrini’s attacking approach has already seen them score 75 goals in 25 games this season—50 in 12 home matches. They managed 18 in six Champions League group games, and only Real Madrid, with 20, managed more.
Much of that has been down to the striker partnership of Alvaro Negredo and Sergio Aguero, who have instantly clicked and formed a devastating combination. They scored 11 goals in qualifying, and both look supremely confident every time they step onto the pitch.
The form of Samir Nasri has also been a major contributing factor to City's impressive goal tally. He has gone from being a player close to the exit door at the end of last season to a first-team regular this one, with a series of impressive displays making him one of City's best players this season.
Add to that the wonderful David Silva, who remains City's most important attacking player, and they have a front four capable of rivaling any in the world.
City must tighten up at the back
While City's attack has been functioning superbly, the defensive side of their game has been a little shaky, particularly when Vincent Kompany is injured. They conceded 10 goals in their six group games—too many for a side with aspirations of lifting the trophy.
Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta are City's best defenders, and their place in the side is guaranteed. When Matija Nastasic is back fit, he is likely to partner Kompany at the centre of defence. Nastasic, a 20-year-old with incredible potential, always looks far more assured when playing alongside his captain, and City will be hoping they can both remain fit and form a solid pairing.
At left-back, Gael Clichy is City's best option, and his form is improving after a slow start to the season. If City can field the Zabaleta-Kompany-Nastasic-Clichy combination on a regular basis, they may well begin to see an improvement at the back.
Keeping key players fit is essential
Vincent Kompany, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero. This is the spine of the Manchester City team, and if they are to be successful in Europe this season, these players have to be fit and playing well.
Kompany provides leadership for the team and organisation in defence; Fernandinho and Toure are the driving force in midfield; Silva is the creator of everything going forward; and Aguero is one of the deadliest finishers in the game. Without one of more of these, City can sometimes appear well short of being one of the best sides in Europe. With them, they can mix it with the best.
City have one of the fiercest attacks in football, and Barcelona will not be particularly pleased with the last-16 draw. They are capable of an upset, there's no question about that, but whether they are capable of lifting the trophy is another question altogether. Progress has been made, though, and expect them to be stronger contenders in the coming seasons.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @TypicalCity.