As reigning champions of England and the Netherlands, Manchester City and Ajax are waging almost carbon copy defences of their domestic crowns.
Both remain undefeated and yet both are perceived to be under-performing in their respective leagues. Ajax have won four and drawn five of their nine games so far, whereas City have won five and drawn three of their opening eight fixtures.
Whether that is a harsh judgment – based on games in the Eredivisie and the Premier League – is debatable. City are, on a game-by-game comparison, six points ahead of last season’s haul of 89 – so much for perception and reality.
But the criticism carries weight in Europe, when it comes to results – if not performances – in their Group D Champions League campaign.
A loss on Wednesday night and Ajax will confirm their status as the ‘also-rans’ of the so-called Group of Death. A late Borussia Dortmund winner in Germany meant a 1-0 defeat, plus a 4-1 pasting at home to Real Madrid, makes for grim reading so far.
City’s record is only marginally better following a soul destroying last minute Ronaldo strike, as Madrid edged a five-goal thriller in the Bernabeu Stadium.
They were under the cosh for long periods in Madrid – a theme that unnervingly continued – when Dortmund dominated at the Etihad in a 1-1 draw.
Neither team can afford to lose and yet a draw isn’t much use to either side. For City, they must seek to emulate the pattern of last season when, having amassed a solitary point from two games, they racked up back-to-back wins over Villarreal.
Victory in the Amsterdam ArenA tomorrow night, followed up by a win in Manchester on November 6th would put Roberto Mancini’s side back in contention.
On paper City appear much stronger than Ajax. This is not an Ajax team that compares favourably with the legendary sides of old – only Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen – stands out as a recognized ‘name’ in the starting XI. Superstars of yesteryear Frank De Boer and Dennis Berkamp are the men plotting pain for the Sky Blues but only from a managerial capacity.
The form guide would also favour City. The 3-0 demolition of Sunderland, prior to the international break, was undoubtedly their best showing so far. This was followed up by a gritty win when reduced to 10-men for 75 minutes, away to a much vaunted West Bromwich Albion.
By contrast, Ajax were held to a 3-3 draw by unfancied Heracles in a topsy-turvy encounter at the weekend.
Mancini is desperate to progress deep into the knockout stages. Going beyond the Group games would show tangible progress on last season, generate money to help City toe the Financial Fair Play line and, enhance his own CV. The CL is the only blemish on an otherwise outstanding managerial career.
Contrary to over optimistic musings in the media, David Silva will not take any part in proceedings along with Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell and Maicon. Skipper Vincent Kompany will also be absent but on disciplinary grounds having been booked twice.
With Richards, Zabaleta, Nastasic, Lescott, Kolarov and Clichy available City have strong defensive options. Similarly, Mancini has a plethora of attacking permutations, with the ‘Dzeko Dilemma’ to address – does the 6-goal striker start or sit on the bench?
There’s a certain irony that CL progression will help generate the funds for City to try and recruit Colombian sensation Radamel Falcao from Athletico Madrid in January. A potential case of turkeys voting for Christmas for Edin, Mario Balotelli or even Carlos Tevez – who knows?
A double Dutch six-point scenario for City must begin in front of a sell-out 53,000 ArenA capacity crowd. A failure to do so could ultimately threaten Mancini’s managerial reign in Manchester.