As Manchester City continue to grow on and off the field, their global appeal increases.
The club’s leadership team—chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak, sporting director Txiki Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano—want them to become an established European superpower and are constantly making progress in their quest. But despite their obvious growth, there's still some way to go before City's owners and directors are fully satisfied.
The development of City since the club’s takeover in 2008 represents one of the most remarkable recent stories in world football.
A club for so long plagued by insecurity and incessant embarrassment, have been completely transformed by the Abu Dhabi United Group.
They have managed domestic success—two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and a Capital One Cup—and have qualified for five consecutive UEFA Champions League tournaments. The days of comical relegations and financial mismanagement are long gone.
Their relationship with Europe’s elite club competition has been difficult, though. The fans have been dissatisfied with UEFA; the players have often seemed nervous and inhibited and results haven’t been great.
A couple of group-stage exits saw Roberto Mancini criticised and played a part in his dismissal. His replacement, Manuel Pellegrini, has fared better, guiding City into the last 16 for three consecutive seasons, but that has been their limit so far.
The first two ended in defeat to Barcelona, which is disappointing, of course, but acceptable in some ways. It’s understandable to lose to the Catalan giants—they’re the best side in world football.
City would have wanted to play better and push Barcelona harder, but there’s a feeling they were unfortunate to draw them two years running. When Lionel Messi plays as he did in the two legs last season, there’s very little you can do stop him.
This season, by virtue of topping their group for the first time, City have bagged themselves a winnable last-16 tie with Dynamo Kiev.
Not only are the Ukraine side far less formidable than Barcelona, Pellegrini’s side play away first, another slight advantage. They will rarely get a getter opportunity to move through to the quarter-finals.
They have been hamstrung somewhat by the Football Association’s insistence they must play away at Chelsea 24 hours before they fly to Ukraine. It’s far from ideal preparations but, regardless, City have enough to get a positive result in Kiev.
But do they have enough to win the competition?
The club’s ultimate goal is to achieve Champions League success. It’s a significant part of their plan to become a European superpower.
Domestic success and a quality squad can only take a club so far. Winning the most glamorous trophy in the game is necessary to gatecrash the elite, but that seems unlikely to happen this season.
The club are patient, though, and the appointment of Pep Guardiola, who will arrive at the Etihad Stadium this summer to take over from Pellegrini, is seen as the next big step in that direction. This season, progress is wanted, but winning the trophy is far from expected.
That’s because City’s squad has some obvious holes. Defensively, despite huge outlay, they remain susceptible to conceding goals, as the defeat to Leicester City last weekend highlighted so glaringly. The Foxes didn’t just beat City, they battered them and could easily have scored more.
The naivety City showed was staggering. Leicester’s ability to play on the counter, with Jamie Vardy’s pace in behind centre-backs, has been the tactic that has seen them get so many unexpected, excellent results this season. Rather than heed those warnings, City played straight into the hands of the league leaders and paid a huge price.
Martin Demichelis, 35, struggled badly, and Nicolas Otamendi—like Eliaquim Mangala—veers from brilliance to disaster in the blink of an eye.
The former Valencia man, a £28 million summer capture, spends far too much time on the ground, sliding in recklessly in an attempt to win the ball. When it works, it looks superb, but players are becoming wise to his style and are too often skipping past him. That leaves Demichelis, who lacks pace, one on one with a forward, which is bad news for City.
Add in Aleksandar Kolarov, who continues to lack the kind of defensive capabilities City need to achieve their ambitions, and the team look too easy to play against.
The way Riyad Mahrez flew past the Serb for the opener after a couple of minutes was concerning. Both he and Fabian Delph tried to stop him cutting inside but left too much space on the outside. Mahrez accepted their invitation and Kolarov was forced to hack him down before entering the box. Leicester scored from the resulting free-kick and then were perfectly set up to play their counter-attacking game.
That kind of defending gets you nowhere, particularly in the Champions League knockout stages, where every team can hurt you.
The only thing that could change things is if Vincent Kompany can stay fit. He’s back in training and ready to be part of City’s matchday squad again, but his latest comeback lasted just nine minutes, with his continued calf problems holding him back. City fans won’t be holding out much hope.
With him in the side, Joe Hart in superb form and Gael Clichy looking to be edging closer to his best, City could look much more stable in the coming weeks. Otamendi looked assured alongside Kompany when they played together earlier in the season, with the leadership the Belgian brings seemingly vital in City’s quest for defensive solidity.
There’s a lot of ifs and buts in that scenario, though. One look at Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich and, clearly, there are sides who look more solid and settled than City. Winning the competition is likely to be beyond them this season.
However, progress is essential, and getting past Kiev is a must. Moving into the quarter-finals would help remove some of the psychological stumbling blocks that have held them back in this competition since they first qualified back in 2011.
That would mean Guardiola inheriting a side better equipped for success, one free from the feeling that they have inadequacies when playing against Europe's best.
There have been some understandable defeats in recent seasons—Barcelona and Bayern Munich—but there have also been too many displays against sides City should be beating given their squad.
A quarter-final appearance, perhaps even further, and the arrival of the most coveted manager in the game would surely see belief in the City squad grow.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2015/16 season. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard_.