Manchester City Club Focus – Citizens make Champions League bow with Napoli test

Manchester City’s last sojourn into Europe’s premier club competition began with a typically bullish Malcolm Allison proclamation. City, their assistant manager said, would ‘terrify the cowards of Europe’. Renowned for his outlandish soundbites every bit as much as for his innovative coaching methods, Allison had every reason to be confident. Going into the 1968/69 European Cup, the Citizens had beaten Manchester United – weeks later to win the 1967/68 European Cup with a famous extra-time defeat of Benfica at Wembley – to the title and as such entered the competition with aspirations of emulating their city rivals’ success at Wembley Stadium the previous May.

Two games later, their European dreams lay in tatters. A dismal 0-0 draw at Maine Road was followed up with a 2-1 defeat in Istanbul, rendering Allison’s words foolishly presumptuous.

Roberto Mancini’s City exude a quieter confidence going into Wednesday evening’s fixture with Napoli. A conservative target of progressing beyond the group stage has been set – the Italian tactician resorting to the maxim of taking each hurdle as it comes.

A strong start is imperative. On the face of it, the Neapolitans are the least daunting of the tests awaiting City in Group A. They too are debutants in the Champions League. Like the Blues, their recent history has been tumultuous, encompassing traumatic relegations with forays through the provinces to reach the top level of Italian football once more.

They are the representatives from the weakest league in terms of UEFA coefficients in the group, and indeed only returned to the Italian top flight in 2007 after a seven year absence which had seen them drop into the infernal Serie C. Their wing-back system, whilst effective against teams playing a narrow 4-3-1-2 diamond formation as is in vogue throughout Serie A, is susceptible to teams playing more expansive, attack-minded football. The bewildering interchanging of Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, David Silva and company in attack should be enough to ensure that Christian Maggio and Andrea Dossena, their forward thrusts so important to the aggressive counter-attacking style favoured by manager Walter Mazzari, are occupied in their own third. Achieving this should be the key to City’s success.

Nevertheless, Napoli are rich with potential. They will be backed in numbers by one of the noisiest, most partisan followings to visit the City of Manchester Stadium this season, and in Edinson Cavani, Goran Pandev, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik boast an attacking quartet to rival most in the competition. Few sides in Europe boast a counter-attack as dangerous as theirs. Few sides are as exhilarating to watch in their pomp.

And to think that Bayern Munich and Villarreal are to follow! Little wonder Roberto Mancini chose his seasonal target so cautiously. Whatever the result, it promises to be spectacular.

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