Bayern Munich and Manchester City have already claimed their place in the Champions League knockout phase, but both clubs will be fully aware of the importance of their meeting on Tuesday to decide the top spot in Group D. Finishing first in a group that has been plain sailing for the two favorites would mean likely avoiding giants Real Madrid, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain in the next round.
If Bayern were to falter, it would be a major disappointment after a group which they have progressed through at a canter, winning all five games, scoring 15 goals and conceding just twice. It would also be a major surprise were that to happen, with Bayern having to lose by three goals at the Allianz Arena for City to surpass them.
Bayern have been imperious since Pep Guardiola took the reins of the European champions and only look to be getting better. On Saturday the Bavarians made it an incredible 40 games unbeaten in the Bundesliga with a 7-0 destruction of Werder Bremen, away from home. Making their record this season even more impressive is that Guardiola has had to deal with several players absent each week thus far. While the likes of Mario Gotze, Thiago Alcantara and Javi Martinez have now returned to fitness, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben and the reinvented Philipp Lahm are now out. The options at Guardiola’s disposal when everyone is fit are frightening.
In terms of squad strength, no side in England are as well placed as Manchester City. And City have produced the best one-off performances in the Premier League thus far in delivering hammerings to Manchester United, Norwich and Tottenham. The problem has been consistency and, in particular, matching their impressive performances at the Etihad away from home. There are signs, though, that Manuel Pellegrini is beginning to get things right.
A victory at West Brom and a point at a strong Southampton side in the past week is an encouraging return. At the home of the last season’s Champions League winners that improvement will really be put to the test.
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Indeed, City’s candidacy to be serious players in this season’s Champions League will also be under scrutiny. Pellegrini has already achieved his first objective when being appointed this summer in succeeding where predecessor Roberto Mancini had twice failed and leading City into Europe’s last-16 for the first time. That, though, should be the minimum expectation for a club of City’s resources and talent.
Against Bayern at the Etihad in October, City’s European ambitions were given a sharp dose of reality. On that night Bayern were completely dominant and the margin of victory could easily have been far more than just the two goals. Pellegrini’s surprisingly naïve tactics were at the heart of the gulf between the sides with the decision to play two strikers giving Bayern complete control of the midfield and led to them having two-thirds of the possession.
It is hard to imagine the Chilean, who came up against Guardiola many times as Malaga and before that Real Madrid coach, will make the same mistake again. Having said that, he has continued, against the common trend, to play with two men up front and has in general garnered much success. Indeed his preferred partnership of Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo are in a rich vein of form.
Pellegrini will be loathed to drop either one and his options to reinforce his midfield are diminished with Yaya Toure suspended and David Silva doubtful. If he does keep Aguero and Negredo up front then it will be crucial that the Argentine drops deep to help out his midfield against the strongest area of Bayern’s team.
It is improbable that City can secure the margin of victory needed to top the group, but it could still prove to be highly significant for Pellegrini’s men to hold their own against a side that currently looks unstoppable in their quest to become the first team to repeat as Champions League winners.
Prediction: Bayern Munich 2-1 Manchester City