Mancini will be hoping to put his past European demons behind him.

by Liam McConville

This week brings about the return of the group stages of Europe’s premier club competition, the Champions League. Already the draw has provided us with some mouth-watering clashes with the English clubs faring very differently. Manchester United and Arsenal both have fairly comfortable looking groups; meanwhile the holders Chelsea have been handed a tricky group with Italian champions Juventus providing their main threat, however they should expect to qualify.

Yet again the side with by far the most difficult draw is from the blue half of Manchester. They were placed in Group D, in what was dubbed ‘the group of champions’. City were drawn with Ajax, Borussia Dortmund and most ominously, Real Madrid. Mancini’s team are of course playing catch-up with the rest of Europe’s heavyweights as they strive to climb up UEFA’s rankings and in turn receive the much coveted top seeding (and the generally easier passage that such status provides) that the rest of the English teams enjoy.

Still City would have hoped from a little bit of mercy from the draw in Monaco, instead they find themselves in what stands out as the most competitive and admittedly exciting group. For Roberto Mancini the draw must have been frustrating for a man with a big point to prove in Europe. Despite winning three consecutive Scudettos with Inter Milan, Mancini was sacked for being unable to deliver the success expected in the Champions League.

In four European campaigns with Inter, Mancini couldn’t get beyond the quarter-finals stage. Towards the end of his tenure he even appeared to be going backwards in Europe after being comprehensively beaten by Liverpool in the last sixteen stage in 2008. That defeat prompted Mancini to state he would be leaving at the end of the season before retracting that statement twenty-four hours later.

However that U-turn wasn’t enough for the fiery Italian to keep his job, he was duly sacked in the summer and replaced by Jose Mourinho and the rest as they say is history. Now Mancini faces the man who replaced him at Inter and a man who has often been linked to his current job several times in the past. Although there is no questions about the popular manager’s job at the moment, failure in Europe again this season would certainly not sit well with the club’s ambitious owners.

So what would constitute success for City this time around? Another exit at the group stage would be bitterly disappointing but with such a tough group it’s certainly a possibility. City will at least want to reach the knockout stage, with an eye on the latter stages of the competition. Madrid have had a very poor start in the league but they will be a different prospect in Europe.

Mourinho will be desperate to deliver Madrid’s tenth European crown before sailing into the sunset and given the current frictions around the Bernabeu, this could be his final shot at the Holy Grail with Real. It is imperative to get off to a good start if City are to succeed; a trip to the Bernabeu first up will be a very stern test. Anything gained from this game will be a huge boost and provide the sort of momentum required for a successful European campaign.

Dortmund will be a very interesting prospect, they will have learned from their own failure in Europe last year. Their blistering domestic form over the last couple of years suggests they’ll be even stronger this season and they should be written off at City’s peril. Their 5-2 triumph over Bayern Munich in last season’s German Cup final shows just how good they are. Although they have lost Shinji Kagawa, they have added German international Marco Reus in what is still a dangerous and exciting side.

Ajax are also no mugs, the Dutch champions were unfortunate to get knocked out of the group stages last year after Lyon completed an improbable seven goal swing in goal difference to pip them to second spot in the final game. Ajax went on to push Manchester United hard in the Europa League, they will be a tough challenge but one City should overcome.

This group will be a defining moment for Mancini one way or another, City can expect to qualify but will know it will be very tough. The Italian can either confound his critics or just prove his doubters right again. City fans will be praying it’s the former.