After two successive premature exits from the Champions League, Manchester City will be aiming to make a long-awaited statement of their arrival among Europe's elite with the visit of holders Bayern Munich on Tuesday.
While City have not been explicit about it in public, there can be little doubt that a significant factor in what attracted them to Manuel Pellegrini was his record in the Champions League. In the summer City dispensed with a man in Roberto Mancini who fell below expectations at both Inter Milan and the Etihad Stadium in a competition which the club’s owners like all others use as a true barometer of their standing at Europe’s grand table. As the Italian’s replacement they have turned to someone with a record starkly opposed to that of his predecessor, having overachieved with the unfashionable Villarreal and Malaga.
In truth, Pellegrini’s task to lead City out of the group stage for the first time has been helped by a draw that is kinder than either of those encountered by Mancini. Yet, given the investment gone into the club in recent years and the players at their disposal, City should be fearing no one. While Viktoria Plzen were comfortably disposed of on Matchday One, Pellegrini will be all too aware that the visit of Bayern Munich on Wednesday represents an important early test.
The Chilean, who is making a late first foray into the English game at 59, has thus far enjoyed a mixed start domestically. A 4-1 destruction of local rivals Manchester United displayed City’s potential in a spectacular manner, but, equally, defeats against newly promoted Cardiff City and, at the weekend, to Aston Villa reflected the weaknesses that persist.
Going forward City have a wealth of options. Starting from the middle, the influential driving force of the side Yaya Toure now has a quality operator alongside him in Fernandinho. A vital introduction of pace on the flanks has also been provided by the signing of Jesus Navas, while David Silva and Samir Nasri are capable of more subtle means of unlocking an opponent’s defense. And up front City have a collection of strikers that few clubs around Europe can come near. Indeed Pellegrini’s biggest task maybe on settling on the right combination between Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo, Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic.
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It is at the back, though, where the problems lie. City’s defensive investment over the summer consisted of a late move to bring in 32-year-old Martin Demichelis. He is a man well known to Pellegrini and an experienced operator at the top level, but there is a reason he was shown the door by Tuesday’s opponents (before, perhaps not entirely incidentally, they went onto reach back-to-back Champions League finals).
At his best Vincent Kompany is one of the world’s finest central defenders, while the preferred choice alongside him Matija Nastasic has shown signs of developing into one. At just 20 years of age, he is still a work in progress, though, as his performance against Villa showed on Saturday. The fact that only the error-prone Joleon Lescott and Demichelis are available as alternatives is a worry. At left-back Pellegrini has sown a preference for Aleksandar Kolarov, who, good though he is going forward, lacks the pace and positional awareness going the other way.
Against Pep Guardiola’s Bayern, City’s back line is likely to get a thorough examination unlike any they have yet faced under Pellegrini’s stewardship. Bayern are undefeated in 12 matches in all competitions this season, failing to win on just two occasions -- one of which was the UEFA Super Cup against Chelsea that they eventually sealed on penalties.
Understandably stepping in and trying to improve a team that won a historic treble last season has not been completely free of teething problems for Guardiola. His utilization of Philipp Lahm in midfield has led to calls of unwise over tinkering, while there were certainly problems with the balance of the team early on as the former Barcelona boss moved away from a double midfield pivot of last season to just a solitary defensive midfielder.
Given the amount offensive midfield talent at his disposal -- Toni Kross, Mario Gotze, Thomas Muller, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Xherdan Shaqiri -- that is perhaps an understandable decision. And in recent weeks there have been signs of Bayern’s incredible defensive solidity of last season returning. Saturday’s 1-0 defeat of Wolfsburg made it just one goal conceded in their last five outings.
But Guardiola, like his opposite number who he regularly bested in La Liga, will be eager to make a pointed statement in a match that has all the ingredients to be the highlight of this season’s group stage.
Manchester City: David Silva is fit to make his first appearance after close to a month out with injury. Aguero is likely to come back into the side after missing the 3-2 defeat to Aston Villa. Jesus Navas, only a substitute at the weekend, is set to return in place of James Milner.
Bayern Munich: Mario Gotze was an unused substitute against Wolfsburg on Saturday and is an option for Guardiola after returning from an injury suffered in August’s UEFA Super Cup. Javi Martinez and Thiago Alcantara remain on the sidelines, as does long-term injury victim Holger Badstuber.