If there has been one major criticism of Manchester City in recent seasons, it’s been their Champions League performances. Two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup and improvements at every level of the club have been Sheikh Mansour’s reward for his investment in the club, but success in Europe has so far eluded him and is surely the club’s next big objective.
The two campaigns Roberto Mancini oversaw ended in huge disappointment, with City failing to get out of the group stage on either occasion. Sure, he faced two unfathomably tough draws, but City’s investment is such that group-stage exits are seen as a huge failure, a fact which probably contributed to the Italian’s demise.
Last season, though, under Manuel Pellegrini, a more favourable draw and an improved style of play saw the club qualify from the group stage for the first time. A sense of relief washed over the club and its supporters. A third season of failing to progress would have been disastrous, with the media storm that would have ensued likely to have damaged their players psychologically.
A win away against Bayern Munich—their first against an elite Champions League side—was a sure sign of progress, and their last-16 defeat to Barcelona can also be viewed as a positive.
City were comfortable for much of the tie but showed Barcelona too much respect in the first leg, and it cost them. Martin Demichelis’ red card proved fatal, as did the decision to play a half-fit Sergio Aguero in the return match at the Camp Nou. The Catalan giants were certainly beatable, and City’s players can take heart from that at least.
And now, with the improvements they’ve made to their squad, further progress will be expected. Winning the competition may well prove beyond them this season, but impacting the latter stages will be high on the club’s list of priorities.
There’s little doubt this squad is capable.
Unlike in 2012, City have added quality and depth to their title-winning side. They now have two excellent players in every position, a level of competition for places previously unknown at the club. Every player is aware that a substandard performance will see them lose their place—the kind of competition every club competing for four trophies craves.
The draw for this season’s group stage takes place this week in Monaco with City in Pot 2. Benfica and FC Porto are arguably the easiest sides City can hope to draw from Pot 1, with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid also possible opponents.
City will be keen to avoid both Monaco and Roma from Pot 4, as well as Leverkusen (if they win their play-off with Copenhagen) from Pot 3, all of whom are more than capable of beating the biggest sides in the competition.
It’s time for City to believe they belong among Europe’s elite. They have won at the Allianz Arena and have gone toe-to-toe with Barcelona. They have a manager buoyed by a successful debut season in English football and a squad boosted by the arrival of some quality players who give them more options tactically.
City should not fear anyone in this season’s Champions League. A semi-final place is perfectly achievable and would represent huge progress. The improvements made under Pellegrini are clear to the club's supporters. Now, it's time for Europe to see the same.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2014-15 season. Follow him on Twitter here: @RobPollard_