Even Manchester City fans with the most nervous of dispositions could not have worried unduly about Europa League qualification. This Manchester City team is built of stronger, more expensive material than Stephen Ireland’s Aston Villa side disposed of by Rapid Vienna at this stage of the competition for the second consecutive season, and adding to their one-goal first-leg advantage proved a formality.
As is Roberto Mancini’s wont with such a vast squad at his disposal, numerous changes were made following Monday night’s impressive statement of intent against Liverpool, allowing Shaun Wright-Phillips and David Silva to return to the starting line-up. Adding experience to a youthful team were Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Adebayor, whilst forgotten-man Jo was brought in from the wilderness to start in attack – rich reward for a fine pre-season. If only Robinho could take heed from his attitude.
Goals from Wright-Phillips and Dedryck Boyata sealed a tie which was rarely in doubt to earn City a return to the Europa League having missed out last season. Doubtless the squad is big enough to cope with competing in European competition once again, as well as sustaining a challenge at the top end of the Premier League. Not to say, of course, that City are in any position to prioritise. The blue half of Manchester has not been able to celebrate a significant trophy since Mike Doyle lifted the League Cup in 1976. Lifting the Europa League trophy come May would be an iconic image to cherish, irrespective of the money which has went into rebuilding the football club.
Ireland will not be playing in the Europa League this season. A 3-2 defeat to Rapid Vienna at Villa Park saw the Villains knocked out 4-3 on aggregate and the result will not have gone unnoticed by Manchester City fans.
Having completed his transfer to Aston Villa in part-exchange for James Milner, Ireland unleashed a volley of criticisms at the club with whom he spent the best part of a decade. Milner, he said, would be in for a “shock” if he “thinks the grass will be greener on the other side.”
In spite of the time the club spent nurturing him into the first team and his own so-called ‘loyalty’ to Manchester City throughout the turbulence caused by managerial, squad and boardroom changes during his time at the club, Ireland has long since been viewed as a controversial figure. It must have seemed something of a shock for City fans to read that a player who once famously turned up for training in a Range Rover resplendent with pink interior and rims criticised the club’s current crop of youngsters for being too concerned with material wealth rather than success on the pitch. Similarly with City palpably more coherent defensively (if still erring on the side of caution and over-reliant on moments of individual brilliance to win games) and conceding fewer goals, it was galling to hear of his argument that training and preparation was often disorganised.
Naturally his replacement James Milner, buoyed by his debut man-of-the-match performance against Liverpool, begs to differ. “The set up is very good at City,” he enthused. “The professionalism and attention to detail, right down to recovery and preparation for games, is right up there.” Such observations can only have been backed up by Thursday night’s results.
Milner was one of the few England players to emerge from South Africa with any credit and is now keen to test himself at the very highest domestic level. Although the Europa League will not be part of his long term plans at the City of Manchester Stadium, this season’s line-up in effect offers a taster of the places he and City will hope to visit in the Champions League in future. Poor domestic seasons mean that joining City in Friday’s Europa League group stage draw will be Juventus, Liverpool and FC Porto. The riches and prestige might not be on par with the Champions League, but there is the prospect of a number of white-hot European nights at Eastlands over the coming season.
City’s huge squad, on the one hand a hindrance in the Premier League where numbers have to be cut to 25 by August 31, is an advantage insofar as it allows them to juggle domestic and European commitments. Ireland may come to regret his choice of words as a parting shot to Manchester City. Thursday’s defeat of Timisoara and the victory over Liverpool indicates a City side coping quite nicely in his absence.