It was a case of Turkish Delight for Manchester City at 17.27hrs on 29th August, as Galatasaray emerged from the painfully pedantic Champions League draw in swish downtown Geneva.
The Turks were handed a route into the so-called Group of Death, that only moments earlier had seemed City’s fatal destiny for the third consecutive season.
The storm clouds gathering over City, as they looked set for stern tests in Madrid and Turin courtesy of Real and Juventus, cleared to reveal sky blue heaven at colder, but heart-warmingly, more optimistic trips to Bavaria and Moscow.
With a bullet seemingly dodged, City’s spirits were further buoyed when they avoided Napoli in the fourth seeds pot and pointed towards Plzen – home of the famous Pilsner beer in the Czech Republic.
Cue respectful words from Txiki Begiristain, Manchester City’s Director of Football, as he was questioned about the Czech champions and City’s easiest route to the CL knockout stages, at the third time of asking.
But before City’s increasingly expectant support gets too carried away with six points guaranteed from their newly discovered Czech mates, it’s worth remembering that Plzen demolished City’s nemesis, Napoli, 5-0 over two legs in last season’s Europa League.
Having battled through three qualifying rounds just to reach the Group stage, Plzen are rightly regarded as rank underdogs against Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow and City…but even the smallest of dogs can still bite.
Just ask mighty AC Milan who were strolling to a 2-0 win in the tiny 11,700 capacity Doosan Arena – the same ground that will host 600 travelling City fans, along with those insane enough to buy last minute tickets at £86 to mingle with the locals.
The Milanese aristocrats of Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho were prancing, catwalk style, to the three points when Plzen hit what was surely an 89th minute consolation goal. Four minutes later, and the brewers of Western Bohemia were toasting an incredible equaliser and the greatest night in the club’s 84-year professional history.
One can only hope that Manchester City can serve up a decidedly more sobering experience, and leave the Czechs with a taste as bitter as the hops used to ferment their famous and intoxicating lager export.
For Manuel Pellegrini – hired by City’s Abu Dhabi owners to get City beyond the Group stages at the third time of asking – he would willingly import three points, rather than three pints, from Eastern Europe.
After an unspectacular start to the domestic Premier League campaign, Pellegrini could come into his own on the grander European stage.
Having handsomely over achieved with Villarreal and Malaga in the polar opposite manner as Roberto Mancini was perceived to have under achieved with City, the amiable Chilean needs to continue with what many view as an away banker.
With frustration levels rising at some disjointed performances since the season opening sizzler against Newcastle, City would be off to a flyer if they can plunder maximum points from an opening CL fixture for the first time.
Encouraging noises about a returning Vincent Kompany may turn out to be just that, with City still reluctant to rush their talisman captain back into action too soon, especially with a spicy Manchester derby on the horizon.
Pellegrini has already shown he is not averse to wholesale squad rotation if the ends justify the means. The disappointment felt and vented by many City’s fans after the lacklustre 0-0 draw at Stoke, would be replaced by an acknowledgement of the manager’s tactical acumen if City ‘czech-out’ with a win.
David Silva is a definite non-starter due to injury, so either Samir Nasri or the jaunty new debutant Stevan Jovetic could come in to support a twin strike force of Dzeko and Aguero. The big Bosnian may be restored to the starting line up after City’s attack proved to be a contradiction in terms in the Potteries.
Fernandinho will surely come in to bolster the midfield due to his wealth of CL experience with Shakhtar Donetsk. If the box-to-box Brazilian gets the nod then I, along with just about every Etihad-goer would implore Pellegrini to release Yaya and have him yomping goalbound, well away from his deep lying defensive duties.
The giant Ivorian’s impact this season – bar two exquisite free kick strikes – has been diminutive and consequently very disturbing.
Maybe the impending return of City’s ‘Kompany Man’ will allow the firm’s resident colossus to go careering up the park, causing chaos and wreaking havoc in his wake.
With so much focus on the supposed frailties of City’s, at times, decimated defence, it’s quite telling that only Cardiff have beaten Joe Hart in the four opening PL fixtures.
And, with the thick end of £60m spent on rejuvenating an attack that saw a marked dip in outputs last season, it’s about time Pellegrini’s purchases began to punch their weight.
Navas and Negredo are no strangers to one another and Jovetic looked lively and more than willing in his delayed debut in the Potteries. If Sergio can slip into his sniper-like sharpshooting shoes then the goals will flow once again.
It wouldn’t hurt if Dzeko could trap a ball better than he can trap wind or a bag of cement, and then he could make a contribution more commensurate with his pre-City career reputation.
This may be treason in the eyes of the ‘Edin equals Eden’ types but he flatters to deceive time and time again. If he scores one he should have scored four, if he scores two he’s probably missed five…the chances to goals ratio are not encouraging.
Nobody is expecting white hot a la White Hart Lane 2011 performances game in and game out, but he has to be more clinical in front of goal especially in the CL.
The left back berth could be crucial as Frantisek Rajtoral, Plzen’s raiding right winger could prove a threat. With Gael Clichy likely to be still missing through injury Aleksander ‘AK47’ Kolarov could be exposed by the speedy 27-year old wide man. Providng adequate defensive cover down City’s left flank may dictate James Milner’s inclusion, because of his all round abilities and willingness to track back.
If Pellegrini’s men are wary of the potential pitfalls of Plzen and step up from their recent pedestrian pace of play, they are more than capable of ensuring the bullet dodged on August 29 does not ricochet and hit them up the rear on Tuesday September 17!
By David Walker