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This City needs Stronger Foundations

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 03: Mario Balotelli of Manchester City listens with team mates to his manager Roberto Mancini during a training session prior to their UEFA Champions League group stage match against Borussia Dortmund, at Carrington Training Ground on December 3, 2012 in Manchester, England.

Manchester City have been knocked out of the Champions League Group stages, for the second season in a row. Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers are two other names that come to mind when we talk about English teams who, despite having a good run in the Premier League at the respective time, just couldn’t find their feet in Europe and eventually ran out of opportunities.

Newcastle first qualified for the Champions League (after the Competition adopted the new avatar in 1992-93) in the 1997-98 season. A decent showing, including a home win over Barcelona, saw them finish third in Group C above the Catalan giants, but not good enough to make it through to the next stage. The next three seasons would see Newcastle languishing outside the top 10 in the Premier League and at times, battling for survival until the Bobby Robson era began in 2001-02 and Newcastle qualified again for the Champions League in 2002-03, and bowed out in third place after the second Group stage.

Another good showing domestically saw Newcastle qualify for the 2003-04 season of the UCL, only to be knocked out this time by Partizan Belgrade in the Third Qualifying Round even before the Group stages. Nine years on, Newcastle are yet to make a comeback to Europe’s premier club competition.

Blackburn Rovers, after finishing fourth in the Premier League in 1993, runners-up the following year and winners in 1994-95, qualified for the 1995-96 UCL and finished bottom of Group B with just a single win. Since then, despite a handful of UEFA Cup appearances in the noughties, Blackburn have managed to get relegated from the Premier League twice in this time period.

Manchester City, of course, have now gone one stop worse than Blackburn and have the dubious honour of becoming the first English team to compete in the group stage of the Champions League without winning a game and finishing with the worst points tally. The question that arises is whether Manchester City will also suffer similar fates as Newcastle and Blackburn.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 03: Manchester City players warm up during a training session prior to their UEFA Champions League group stage match against Borussia Dortmund, at Carrington Training Ground on December 3, 2012 in Manchester, England.

The answer is probably no, because of the massive amounts of money that has been spent to assemble the Premier League’s Galacticos. With yet another strong domestic campaign, they may well qualify for the Champions League again, but a decent run in the Champions League will take some doing and only the team sheet can’t ensure success in Europe for the ‘noisy neighbours’ from Manchester.

Of course, being drawn into two of the toughest groups both this season and the last, didn’t make it an easy first two seasons in the Champions League for Manchester City, but that shouldn’t really have deterred a team that was assembled with a single purpose, that of winning every available trophy. So there are quiet a few things that need to be worked upon before European glory can grace the Etihad, beginning with the ability to raise the game and fight at crucial moments in big European nights. One would have expected much more from the Premier League Champions, after having twice taken the lead against the run of play at the Bernabeu on Matchday 1.

But a complete defensive breakdown and lack of strong will (something that a club like Reading would suffer from), led to them not just drawing but losing the match in the last five minutes. And City never really recovered from that loss. Falling one by one to both Dortmund and then Ajax.

Another thing that needs massive improvement is their ability to convert the good starts into goals, and to not concede first, as it clearly didn’t help them in any way by conceding first or losing the lead six times in the UCL this season.

That’s not like the City in the Premier League.

They would start brightly and fade away, and Mancini would end up bringing on a new set of players to get a result, thereby chopping and changing the team, which found it difficult to settle down. Mancini finding it hard to pick the right starting XI is another factor that needs immediate solution, as through his selections it can be clearly seen that he seems preoccupied with the upcoming matches in the Premier League this weekend.

Wouldn’t it just be better if he starts with his best team and then takes the key players off once the result is secured?

In most of the games, City players were just not working hard enough off the ball. In the home tie against Borussia Dortmund, their territorial advantage percentage was only 33%, which means that Dortmund pressed from the moment they lost the ball and pressed City in numbers in their own half. Something that even Madrid players do very well and is a skill that is an integral part of any big European team’s game.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 03: Pablo Zabaleta and Jack Rodwell of Manchester City lead out the team during a training session prior to their UEFA Champions League group stage match against Borussia Dortmund, at Carrington Training Ground on December 3, 2012 in Manchester, England.

Ergo, City have to adopt the pressing game more efficiently if they are to compete for a quarter or semi-final spot in Europe in the future. Another major problem responsible for City’s failure and one that needs taking care of was their albeit lack of ability to create chances. With a squad filled with supremely expensive, talented and experienced players and an almost enviable and destructive strike force, City in their six group matches averaged less than nine attempts on goal per game, with five on target.

Dortmund’s second-string team had 13 attempts on goal on Tuesday night against City. The figures speak for themselves and the lack of chances is down to the set up and formations being implemented by the manager, which brings us to the other major problem, Mancini’s tactics.

The zonal marking adopted by Mancini is an unconvincing and ineffective tactic, and quite a few times this season, City’s defence has been left looking dumbfounded. Then there is the constant saga of choosing the right formation. This was most evident in the second match against Real Madrid at the Etihad. City started with a 3-5-2 and were a goal down after ten minutes. They looked to be in shambles until they re-organised to a 4-3-3 and were a different team, but it was too late.

But its not only about the system, it’s about playing the right players in the right positions and whether the players understand it. For example, Yaya Toure can offer so much more in attack and create chances, if allowed to play in an attacking role every match, but that doesn’t happen. Another thing Mancini is lacking is the ability to enthuse intensity and team spirit into the squad. Barring Kompany, Tevez and Aguero, no one showed any real intensity and hunger to turn things around in difficult situations and that has been a strong reason for them finishing the Group stage winless and at the bottom.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 03: Manchester City players listen to their manager Roberto Mancini during a training session prior to their UEFA Champions League group stage match against Borussia Dortmund, at Carrington Training Ground on December 3, 2012 in Manchester, England.

The commitment and passion shown by a Lewandowski, who is valued at a miserly £4 million, every minute he was on the pitch, was phenomenal as compared to that of a Dzeko, who is valued at a whopping £27 million, clearly proving that players with a personal hunger to do well who are simultaneously urged on by a passionate manager are more effective as opposed to an expensively valued player with no hunger and push from the manager.

Mancini has had almost unlimited resources at his disposal ever since he took over and even though he won a Premier League title, that can’t just be the target for a club which has spent close to £1 billion (or the value of an average Indian scam) on signing players and coaching staff in the past three years.

Mancini and his men may have all the wages, but what they need now is an insatiable desire to win big matches and only that can lead them on to European Glory.

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