The dream of Manchester City’s owner Sheikh Mansour is to build a dynasty. A club perennially capable of challenging for titles domestically and in Europe.
[ MORE: City seal last 16 spot ]
Up until now, City have floundered in the UEFA Champions League, sneaking through to the last 16 in each of the last two seasons before being brushed aside by the mighty Barcelona.
This season that dream of European success has already moved a step closer as City qualified for the knockout stages with two Group D games remaining by beating Sevilla 3-1 away from home on Tuesday.
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Speaking to BT Sport after the game, captain Vincent Kompany summed up the feeling in the camp as qualification to the last 16 has never been this straightforward as memories of City not even making it past the group stage in 2011 and 2012 lingered.
“The first feeling is ‘finally’. It’s a difficult group and to qualify with two games spare is an incredible achievement,” Kompany said. “We now have to try and finish first in group, so will try to do that.”
When I sat down and spoke to Kompany recently, he answered rather diplomatically when I asked if he would prefer to win the Premier League title or finally go far, or even win, the UCL.
“Right, so if I am being diplomatic then I have to say, obviously, that they are equally important,” Kompany said. “There is just one thing. You don’t want to see anybody else winning it in your backyard. It is not a case of you want to win the Champions League instead of the Premier League, it’s more the case, for example, [that] it hurts less to see Barcelona lifting the title than it would hurt if ‘the neighbors’ did it. There is huge rivalry in England and I think that is a big part of the story. You are always thinking ‘OK, we want to win the Champions League,’ but you cannot afford to drop your guard because before you even know it it’s not just the title that is gone but that Champions League qualification is gone as well, in a sense where you can’t finish in the top four in the league. There is never really a moment where you can be at ease in England. The difference between being champion and being top four is so little. Then again, the Champions League is a huge priority for the club.”
It is clear that City’s heirachy values the importance of breaking through and becoming the best in Europe highly. They’ve won two Premier League titles in the last three years and the next step for Manuel Pellegrini‘s side is to succeed in Europe. This season they have shown an extra resilience in Europe. They outplayed Juventus for much of their opening group game but switched off late on to let their lead slip and were punished in a 2-1 defeat. They then stumbled to late wins at Borussia Monchengladbach and at home against Sevilla in games which could have gone either way, but they have stuck in there and their win away at Sevilla should have been convincing without their key offensive architects in Sergio Aguero and David Silva. There is a sense that Kompany, Yaya Toure and Joe Hart are sick and tired of being the also rans in Europe. It is time for more.
Not for a second am I suggesting City are among the favorites to win the Champions League. But they shouldn’t be discounted as they gather momentum. Yes, along with Real Madrid they became the first two teams to qualify for the last 16, but there is still plenty of work to be done, especially in securing top spot in Group D as they have a trip to Turin to face second-placed Juve and host Monchengladbach at home to finish things up. This time around, unlike the previous two seasons, City must finish top of their group to be a top seed in the last 16 draw — that would more than likely mean not meeting, and being beaten, by Barcelona for a third-straight season — to give themselves a good shot of at least making the quarterfinals.
Pellegrini has now delivered three successive trips to the last 16 of the UCL since he took over at City. The club had never been into the knockout rounds before he arrived and with an impressively deep squad boasting Raheem Sterling coming into his own, Kevin De Bruyne “en fuego” and the likes of Silva and Aguero to return from injury soon, this season is City’s best chance yet of muscling in among Europe’s elite clubs and challenging for the UCL crown.