Now familiar foes Bayern Munich and Manchester City kick off their Champions League campaigns with a heavyweight clash at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday. Having never previously met in a competitive match, the sides will now be facing off in the group phase for the third time in four seasons.
The frequency of those meetings is a testament to Manchester City’s rapid rise, but also their struggles to break into the true European elite. Last season was the first in which City succeeded in getting out of the group phase, but even a 3-2 win at the Allianz Arena wasn’t enough to ensure top spot in their group and a more favorable draw in the last 16. In their first ever knockout tie in Europe’s top competition, the might of Barcelona were the opponents and City were sent packing. While the club has now won two Premier League titles in three seasons to establish themselves as a true force at home, the club’s mega-rich Abu Dhabi owners now surely crave the prestige and notoriety of being a regular at the sharp end of the Champions League and, indeed, taking home the most prestigious trophy in club soccer.
But before they can think about doing that, Manchester City will again have to negotiate a treacherous group. Not only must they face Bayern, the champions of 2013, but also a rejuvenated Roma side, which finished second in Serie A last season. Two matches against Bayern will not just be chances to show that they can now mix it with Europe’s best, but potentially pivotal opportunities to gain points.
When the two sides met at the Etihad last October, City looked very much the European novices up against continental heavyweights. In truth, a 3-1 defeat flattered the hosts as Manuel Pellegrini got his tactics badly wrong in his first real European test since taking charge. The decision to go with two strikers on that occasion left City horribly open and Bayern, in the early days of Pep Guardiola, looked a good bet to become the first team to retain the European Cup in the Champions League era.
A similar scenario appeared on the cards in Munich in December. Bayern led 2-0 in a game to decide which team would progress to the last 16 as group winners. But City, this time with a reinforced midfield and just one striker, rebounded superbly and a 3-2 win was only tarnished by the fact that, unbeknownst to Pellegrini, they needed just one more goal to take top spot.
Having sold Alvaro Negredo on transfer deadline day and with Stevan Jovetic disappointingly injured once more after a fine start to the season, it seems highly likely that Pellegrini will opt just one striker when City return to the Allianz Arena on Wednesday. The Chilean has suffered a blow, though, with the man brought in this summer to shore up the midfield, Fernando, ruled out through injury. Without the former Porto player, as well as Yaya Toure, on Saturday, City struggled to control the midfield and could only draw 2-2 with Arsenal. Although Fernando remains absent, Toure should return to take the place of Frank Lampard alongside Fernandinho.
Last December, few read much into what was just Bayern’s third defeat of 2013.Yet it turned into a precursor for the defensive failings that would be briefly shown up by Arsenal and Manchester United and then crudely exposed by Real Madrid in an emphatic defeat for the holders in the semifinals. While City may still need to prove themselves on the European stage, Bayern will be eager to show that they have put that major disappointment behind them.
One of Guardiola’s plans to overcome that vulnerability was apparently to switch to a three-man backline. That idea, however, was quickly undermined by a serious knee injury to Javi Martinez. And their defensive options have now been weakened further by yet another injury cruelly suffered by Holger Badstuber, who had just returned after more than 18 months out injured. It could mean that, against Manchester City, there will be a first appearance in a Bayern shirt for the man signed from Roma last month, Mehdi Benatia.
Another late-transfer-window arrival Xabi Alonso has already settled seamlessly into the heart of the Bayern team and played a starring role in a 2-0 win over Stuttgart on Saturday. His early performances are a particular boon to Guardiola, given that he is without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thiago Alcantara and Rafinha through injury. Arjen Robben is also a doubt for Wednesday, although Franck Ribéry made his return from injury and marked it with the second goal against Stuttgart.
Prediction: Neither side has enjoyed an ideal start to the season, and also have key injuries. Bayern appear to still be struggling with something of a World Cup hangover, while City, too, have been impacted by the tournament in Brazil, with Sergio Aguero still not up to full speed. Wednesday’s clash then may not be the best of indicators for how each will fare in Europe going forward this season. City should certainly be competitive, with David Silva in fine form and likely to be handed a central playmaking role. Behind him, though, the loss of Fernando to balance the attacking instincts of Toure is a significant loss. Bayern, with their incredible strength in depth, may just emerge with a narrow win.
Bayern Munich 2-1 Manchester City
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 1