Manchester City are set to light the blue touch paper and rocket through to the knockout stages of the Champions League with a feast of football fireworks tonight.
Manuel Pellegrini’s men will be on an unstoppable trajectory out of Group D if they can produce an illuminating performance of power, precision and poise and send CSKA Moscow spiralling out of the competition.
Having savoured success winning the now sadly defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup way back in 1970, it would be overstating the case to claim the CSKA clash is the most important in City’s various continental football campaigns over the years – but it comes a close second.
A win tonight guarantees progress into the last 16 of Europe’s elite club competition, opening up new horizons as City strive to take a seat at the top table beside the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
That’s not to imply that City are deluded enough to think they have somehow ‘arrived’ and are credible contenders for the Champions League crown in Lisbon next May – no, no, no!
The ‘D’ in Group D never stood for ‘Death’ as in City’s ill-fated missions under Roberto Mancini. That’s not to say the ‘C’ word – complacency – could not yet be City’s undoing.
They laboured long and hard to edge a 2-1 win in Moscow a fortnight ago and, had it not been for a last ditch stop by the now deposed Joe Hart, could have been pegged back to 2-2 in the dying minutes.
Ifs, buts and maybes have littered City’s vocabulary when assessing previous wreckage-strewn CL sojourns. If they somehow conspired to screw up against CSKA it would represent a ‘car-crash’ of unimaginable proportions…but that isn’t going to happen.
The Russians are undoubtedly coming – unless of course you are a drunken Muscovite in which case you’re diverted to Copenhagen – but a sharpshooting City should send them packing at the Etihad.
Pellegrini has taken a bit of a public relations pounding since moving from Malaga to Manchester, mainly due to unexpected reversals on the road in the Premier League.
He’s perhaps a tad fortunate that the PL is wide open this season and, as such, winning it remains a totally viable proposition with just under three-quarters of the schedule still remaining. On the flip side he could secure CL qualification with only two-thirds of the games played.
It calls for perspective at all times and City’s MP will be sitting very comfortably if his side wins this evening, with or without reproducing the pyrotechnics of Saturday’s 7-0 crushing of the Canaries.
As widely reported, Costel Pantilimon will remain as City’s last line of defence against the Russian Army’s most favoured corps. Joe Hart has reportedly taken news of his demotion – temporary as it may be – in the ‘right fashion’, presumably one that involves recognising his shortcomings, working hard and attaining new heights in concentration levels and goalkeeping husbandry.
Vincent Kompany will be absent for a sixth consecutive start and unlikely to appear until the home encounter with Spurs 10 days hence. Luckless Stevan Jovetic won’t be available until December having suffered damage to his calf – the latest in a catalogue of injuries since joining from Fiorentina.
Veteran campaigner Martin Demichelis should make his European debut for City after witnessing the extremes of the English domestic game, the highs of a landslide victory and the lows of a ‘last minute’ defeat.
Vastly experienced in Europe, the Argentine collected a CL runners-up medal when Bayern lost 2-0 to Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the 2010 final. Paradoxically, a runners-up slot this season would represent huge progress for City.
Aleksander Kolarov could be recalled at left back with Pablo Zabaleta on the right and Matija Nastasic, rebuilding his confidence after the Chelsea nightmare, partnering Demichelis in the centre.
The midfield offers Pellegrini a plethora of riches with David Silva in sublime form and the real Samir Nasri, finally emerging in sky blue. Yaya Toure and Fernandinho are forging a better understanding of who does what and when, while Jesus Navas and James Milner give the manager alternative permutations.
Sergio Aguero is in the form of his life with 11 goals so far this season, while strike partner Alvaro Negredo has adapted to life in England very quickly and bagged half-a-dozen goals into the bargain.
On the carpet like Etihad surface and with a 45,000 partizan crowd roaring them on, drowning out any CSKA ‘fans’ who might be stupid enough to repeat the disgusting racial taunts aimed at Yaya, City are red hot favourites and rightly so.
Back-to-back wins over Moscow would secure second spot in the Group with Bayern, as reigning European Champions, destined to secure top slot.
Qualification would fulfil an essential element of Pellegrini’s brief and afford him the luxury of making the PL his top priority for the next three months at least.
He could select his best sides for tough PL matches against Spurs, Swansea, Southampton and Arsenal – without the worry of still having to beat Plzen in Manchester and a wintry trip to Bavaria – sandwiched inbetween. He just needs City to sparkle tonight.
By David Walker www.readbutneverred.com
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