‘It’s a different year, same stuff’. Those were the apposite words spoken by Kevin de Bruyne after Lyon, who had finished 7th in the truncated Ligue 1 2019/20 season, eliminated Manchester City from last season’s Champions League.
Well, following the draw on Thursday afternoon, I sense that a familiar feeling is brewing in Manchester. It looks, on the face of it, as if Pep Guardiola’s side have once again been gifted a rather forgiving set of group stage opponents for Europe’s most prestigious competition. Already, the narrative appears to be repeating itself.
A pretty straightforward progression from the group stages, accompanied by a cautious optimism that this year will be different, before Pep Guardiola plays a 2-5-1-1-1 formation with Ilkay Gundogan deployed as a scrum-half and Erling Halaand scores four goals to send Manchester City crashing out in the round of sixteen once more. It’s written in the stars.
However, this year might be different. Why? Because, unlike in previous years where we’ve convinced ourselves, sometimes with some validity, others less so, that we’re the best team in the world, reality has already slapped Manchester City in the face this season courtesy of a hattrick from everyone’s favourite WKD drinker in the humiliating 5-2 defeat at home to Leicester City.
We know how easy it is to get in behind our defence. We know how much we struggle with pacey forwards. We know how prone we are to bottling a number of opportunities before our opponents score with their first tentative foray forward.
Hence, we are going into this season Champion’s League fully expecting to be comfortably dispatched by Borussia Dortmund or Ajax or Sevilla. So, maybe, with the expectations non-existent, the players might feel liberated and actually play to their capabilities. Maybe, just maybe, Pep will keep in check his more maverick (or, less generously, fraudulent) tendencies and just play the best players in their usual position in their usual system.
Anyway, that’s enough rubbish from me, let’s focus on something more tangible. FC Porto, Marseille, and Olympiakos. Those are the three opponents we’ll have to progress past if we are to see if we can finally put our European nightmares behind us. So, let’s take a closer look at our opponents – two of which, Marseille and Olympiakos, the club will be facing competitively for the first time in its history.
Established – 1893
European honours – 1 x European Cup, 1 x Champions League, 1 x UEFA Cup, 1 x Europa League, 1 x UEFA Super Cup.
Last season – UEFA Europa League Round of 32, eliminated by Bayer Leverkusen.
Fixtures – 21 October 20:00 (H), 1 December 20:00 (A)
Last season’s Primera Liga winners will not be an entirely unfamiliar sight for Manchester City fans. Back when we were relative newcomers to the European scene, our late 2-1 victory in 2012 at the Estadio do Dragao in the Europa League was something of a scalp for the club. The subsequent 4-0 demolition at the Etihad Stadium, where Sergio Aguero scored after 19 seconds, will leave the Portuguese side unlikely to be relishing the encounter. Fun fact – David Pizarro (remember him?) scored his only City goal that night.
Porto will want to make amends not just for the 2012 tie but last season’s unexpected defeat at the hands of Russian outfit Krasnodar in the Champion League’s qualifying stages. They’ll be confident of bouncing back on the European stage after conceding only 22 goals on route to the league title.
Moussa Marega will be the most likely to score. The Malian forward has 60 goals in 145 appearances for the club, and he’s a decent if unexceptional player. Pepe will be an unwelcome sight in the backline. Still playing at 37, Pep Guardiola is only too aware of the former Real Madrid defender’s tendency to be a twat. Sergio Aguero and co will be happy to leave the pitch with only a few bruises to complain of if he plays.
However, the main concern will be the fact that Porto have a Mexican winger called Jesus Corona. Not only is he actually a tricky opponent more than capable of exploiting whichever person happens to be cosplaying as a professional footballer in the left-back position for City that day, we can expect a deluge of shite jokes about his name on social media and from commentators on matchday. Steve McManamanman’s (his name doesn’t deserve to be spell-checked) voice is enough to make you want to pour cement in your ears at the best of times, so the thought of him trying to make a witty joke about Corona infecting the City defence will ensure I watch the game on mute throughout.
Manchester City can be thankful that Ed Woodward panicked on deadline day into buying left-back Alex Telles, which will deprive Porto of a key player. Panic buying is for mugs. No, Txiki was spot on – we’ll be fine with Benjamin Mendy and Oleksandr Zinchenko, thank you very much. On an unrelated note, I’ve just had a sudden urge to go and quietly sob in the corner of a dark room.
Established – 1925
European honours – Balkans Cup x 1
Last season – Champions League group stage (3), Europa League Round of 16, eliminated by Wolves.
Fixtures – 3 November 20:00 (H), 25 November 17:55 (A)
Given the likes of RB Leipzig, Inter Milan and Atalanta were possible Pot 3 opponents, it’s fair to say Manchester City were lucky to land Olympiakos. Athens can be an intimidating away day for sides, but, with a reduced capacity, the unnerving atmosphere of the Karaiskakis Stadium will be severely blunted. Their furthest progress in the competition was in 1998-1999, when the Greek side reached the quarter-finals. Aside from that, they won a Balkans Cup in 1963 – I don’t have much to add on that, other than that it was a competition contested between sides from, well, the Balkans. Domestically, though, they have dominated the scene, with 45 league titles to their name.
However, while there were tougher opponents available, Manchester City would be wise to get Mikel Arteta on the phone. City’s former assistant manager knows only too well the problems Olympiakos can cause, after the Greek team sent Arsenal crashing out of the Europa League last season at the Emirates Stadium via a late Youssef El Arabi strike. Wolves also only narrowly squeezed past Olympiakos via a Raul Jimenez penalty. I predict City will win both games, but I would also expect that they are more competitive affairs than most will anticipate.
Premier League fans may be familiar with a couple of names in the squad – former Watford defender Jose Holebas (36) and former Sunderland midfielder Yann M’Vila (30). Aside from those two, most fans will be familiar with French midfielder Mathieu Valbuena (36) and former Bayern Munich defender Rafinha (35). A combined age of 137 for the quartet there.
So, plenty of experience, but also plenty of complaints of arthritis in the Olympiakos squad. Their most dangerous player and Arsenal nemesis, El Arabi, is a sprightly 33. The Moroccan has 30 goals in 56 games for the club, and in 2015-16 he did net 16 times in La Liga for Granada. If Manchester City’s porous defensive system isn’t solved soon, you wouldn’t be surprised to see El Arabi’s name on the scoresheet.
Established – 1899
European honours – Champions League x 1
Last season – Did not qualify for European competition
Fixtures – 27 October 20:00 (A), 9 December 20:00 (H)
Fun fact – when the European Cup switched its format and branding to the Champions League in the 1992-93 season, Marseille were the inaugural winners of the competition. This game against the former Champions League winners will be the biggest shame to be played in a diminished capacity stadium. The Stade Vélodrome can make for a lively and spectacular atmosphere, and it certainly would have been for the visit of City. If City were fortunate to land Porto and Olympiakos, Marseille were certainly one of the unkindest Pot 4 sides.
Indeed, last season’s Ligue 1 runners-up should not be underestimated. One of their key threats will be a familiar face to Premier League fans. Dmitri Payet looks like he’s about four months pregnant these days but there’s no doubts the portly former West Ham playmaker remains a player capable of magic moments – as his 12 goals and six assists in 27 appearances last season attested to.
Florian Thauvin, who failed to impress at Newcastle in the 2015-16 season, can nevertheless be a tricky opponent, while Argentine striker Dario Benedetto was Marseille’s most prolific player in the league last season with a modest 11 goals. City fans will also be interested to see Boubacar Kamara (20) in action, the versatile defender who has been linked with the club over the past season and already has 79 first-team appearances to his name. He played a role in the side only conceding 28 goals in their 27 league games last season.
This season, after six matches Marseille currently sit 10th, but they did recently defeat PSG 1-0, in a game which earned headlines for the five red cards dished out in injury-time, followed by accusations of racism against defender Alvaro by Neymar.
Defeating Marseille may also prove able to give Manchester City a psychological boost – in spite of the common denunciation of Ligue 1 as a “farmer’s league”, Lyon and Monaco have sent City out of the competition under Pep Guardiola. If City do fail to beat yet another French side, I suspect an existential crisis will take place among our fans as we come to terms with the possibility that, after all the years of mocking, it is us who are the farmers.
So, that’s a brief and light-hearted look at who we’ll be facing in the group stage this season. Let us know on social media @City_Xtra what you make of the group and how you fancy City’s chances this season!
You can follow the author here: @MDGough96