14 September ~ It is difficult to express the feeling among Manchester City fans when Arsenal's stuttering form in the closing weeks of last season handed us third place and a spot in the Champions League group stages. For months the race had been about claiming fourth, and once achieved, the joy was tempered by the thought of a difficult qualifying round draw or, worse, a dismal August defeat in some low coefficient backwater. City's only previous involvement in the top competition back in 1968 came to an end in two games and the guarantee that we'd be around long enough to enjoy it this time meant a wonderfully stress-free summer.
The opponents handed to us in Monaco were excitingly tough, with the group containing representatives (though no champions) of UEFA's top four leagues. It may perhaps be lacking the real top-end glamour that the Champions League conjures up in the minds of the newly-qualified, but the line-up of Bayern Munich, Villarreal and Napoli means six fascinating and testing fixtures.
The Italians, up first tonight, are perhaps the most interesting. City's own past is turbulent enough, but it is to Napoli's what Shameless is to Gomorrah. Declared bankrupt in 2004, forced to refound themselves under a new name (since changed back) and playing in Serie C1 as recently as 2006, their story could easily have ended in oblivion. Instead, their renaissance, particularly since ex-Sampdoria boss Walter Mazzarri replaced Roberto Donadoni in 2009, has been truly remarkable.
Last season, led by the much-coveted (by City among others) duo of Slovakian playmaker Marek Hamsik and Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani, they were able to capitalise on the indifferent form of Juve and Roma to claim third place. Now reinforced by the arrivals of Gökhan Inler and Goran Pandev, they started their season with a win at Cesena on Saturday and will not be limited to aiming for third place and the Europa League.
City, of course, will also be expected to have higher ambitions than simply getting out of their group. Tournament debutants they may be, but their spending, squad strength and ex-CEO's triumphalism ensure that no one will be keen to make excuses for them should they struggle. Surely not even ITV commentators will have the cheek to play the “plucky underdog” card that they can't seem to resist whenever a Premier League team from outside the (traditional) Big Four comes up against a foreign team of any standing.
City certainly have the tools to do well. They have two former winners in Carlos Tévez and Yaya Touré, while David Silva, Sergio Agüero, Vincent Kompany, Edin Džeko, Nigel de Jong and the ex-Arsenal contingent all have competition experience of varying degrees. It's true that the omission of Wayne Bridge and Owen Hargreaves from the 25-man squad means that there are no English players with a Champions League history, but all those with a genuine chance of playing are full internationals. Barcelona's exploits and the frightening early form of Manchester United and Real Madrid should leave City in no doubt about how difficult it will be to make it through to May, but given Tottenham's run last year, the quarter-finals are surely a realistic aim.
Should they fall short, the fans, grateful for the successes of the last six months, are highly unlikely to turn on either team or manager. Whether the board would be similarly understanding is a different question. Roberto Mancini, in particular, well aware from his time at Internazionale how the kudos from domestic achievement can drain away in the wake of European failure will be hoping it's one that remains unanswered. Ian Farrell