Short of drawing Barcelona or Real Madrid, it is hard to conceive of how Thursday’s UEFA Champions League group draw could have presented a more difficult task for competition debutants Manchester City. German giants Bayern Munich present the most arduous task for Roberto Mancini’s men, who also face Villarreal and Napoli.
Injuries notwithstanding, Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery remain the creative hubs of the Bavarian powerhouses, whose propensity to attack with width is simultaneously a potent threat and a drawback. Whilst Ribery and Robben, fit and in their pomp, are virtually unstoppable, Bayern are often over-reliant on the duo for inspiration. Should City adopt a high tempo approach, pressing high up the field and cutting off the supply to the wings, they are capable of destroying Bayern Munich, four-times European champions or not.
Villarreal are an increasingly familiar face at Europe’s top table. This is El Submarino Amarillo’s third venture into the Champions League. Their first was indeed their most successful – only Juan Roman Riquelme’s inexplicable sudden jitters from the penalty spot allowing Arsenal through to the final at their expense. The contemporary side present a different type of challenge. No longer reliant on the playmaking probing of a Riquelme figure, Juan Carlos Garrido’s team is in effect a low-rent copy of Barcelona; full of inventive, short passes, with the movement of Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar prising open defences. However, they lack the defensive cunning – some may say cynicism – of half a decade ago. Messrs Aguero, Silva, Dzeko et al. must be salivating in anticipation.
Napoli provide the opponents from the fourth seed pot. The sky blue shirts are not where the similarities end. Like City, this is their first foray into the Champions League. They, like City’s late sixties vintage, have briefly tasted glory – a spectacular mix of the absurd and the genius throughout the late eighties inspired by Diego Maradona. Similarly they will see their recent resurgence as hard earned payback for the weeks travelling to Teramo and Cheti in Serie C1, the third tier of Italian football. Many City fans making the trip to Naples will likewise remember Saturdays spent at Northampton and Macclesfield thirteen years ago.
Edinson Cavani is the focal point of a counter-attacking team, assisted by the promptings of Marek Hamsik, Gokhan Inler and Ezequiel Lavezzi. They will be the only major team in the competition to start with a five man defence. Useful in combating teams starting with two strikers, Napoli’s wing-back system is eminently exploitable. City’s wide men will have a prominent defensive role to play merely by fulfilling their creative duties. In doing this, they will stop the forward thrusts of Christian Maggio and Andrea Dossena – a huge feature of Napoli’s play.
Whilst the draw could have been kinder – just ask Manchester United – City are eminently equipped to cope. Theirs is a squad of power, verve and experience, one which can, and will, exploit the weaknesses of their opponents. Expect the blue half of Manchester to be represented in this competition for a while yet.
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