When Manchester City step out to face Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium tomorrow night it will arguably be the high point of the club’s 118 year history.
The clash of the champions of Europe’s two most prestigious leagues – La Liga and the Premier League - comes almost 14 years to the day since City were at their lowest ebb, languishing in the third tier of English football. How many of the 4,000 City fans who witnessed the 1-0 win at Moss Rose, Macclesfield in the Division Two ‘derby’ could ever have imagined their beloved Sky Blues playing mighty Madrid, on level terms, in the Champions League?
The National Health Service’s Care in the Community programme would have been overrun with certifiable ‘Blue Moon Loonies’ if any City fan had dared to suggest such an upswing in fortunes. But here we are – at the top table of European football - and here the Roberto Mancini inspired Manchester City intend to stay.
What City fans are describing as the ‘trip of a lifetime’ to the home of the nine times European Cup winners will, hopefully become business as usual in seasons to come.
Buoyed by the news that a certain mercurial Spanish midfielder – Senor Silva – has signed a new five-year deal, City have every reason to believe they are here for the long haul.
Sheikh Mansour’s wealth is as rich as Real Madrid’s history and whereas Jose Mourinho baits City with taunts about their past, even he can see City’s future looks to be laden with silverware.
Mancini and Mourinho have a history all of their own, albeit the shrewd Italian has played down the rivalry. It was the self proclaimed ‘Special One’ who moved into the vacant Manager’s office at Inter Milan after Mancini was unceremoniously sacked – despite winning three successive Scudetto titles.
Bobby Manc was fired for his perceived failings in the Champions League, a competition in which Mourinho excels having now won it with Porto and Inter. For Mourinho to win it a third time with three different clubs would be history in itself. For Mancini to win it for a first time would be payback, as well as the pinnacle of a glorious career, both as player and manager.
It’s an intriguing encounter on so many different levels. City – as a collective - are still novices in the Champions League, but not so as individual players, and certainly not strangers to the towering stands of the Bernabeu. Ex-Real player Javi Garcia will be going home. Likewise Sergio Aguero, he having been Athletico Madrid’s main hitman, although never having tasted success over Real. Former La Liga regulars Yaya Toure, David Silva and Pablo Zabaleta are equally familiar with the imposing environment.
The encounter with Ronaldo, Ramos, Casillas & Co will undoubtedly be a stern test of City’s Champions League credentials, but Mancini’s men are well equipped to acquit themselves with distinction.
Both team’s have begun the defence of their domestic crowns in unspectacular style - Madrid in particular, with two losses, a draw and a solitary win leaving them trailing Barcelona by eight points.
Whereas City can draw comfort from Madrid’s falterings and defensive fragility, they should beware of Mourinho’s ability to motivate and win when big occasions demand. Either way it could be history in the making.
And, for those loyal City fans who stood on the Moss Rose terraces on September 12, 1998, it is irrefutable evidence that dreams really do come true.
By David Walker