By now it is just becoming a standard part of the calendar for Manchester City, greeted with the familiar rolling of eyes and complaints behind the scenes that they feel cursed. This is the sixth season they have appeared in the Champions League and once again they find themselves casting envious glances towards the other English teams in the competition. The déjà vu is overwhelming and, in particular, they could be forgiven for looking at Leicester City and wondering why they never had the same kind of beginners’ luck.
It is not entirely misfortune, of course, when Leicester assured themselves of a more comfortable draw by winning the Premier League, thus entering the draw among the top seeds and going into Group G with Porto, Club Brugge and Copenhagen – the perfect blend of great cities for supporters to visit and opponents the Premier League champions may fancy themselves to beat.
All the same Pep Guardiola must be thinking the same as Manuel Pellegrini before him, and Roberto Mancini too, given the first side Manchester City were paired against was Barcelona and soon afterwards it was confirmed they would be playing Bundesliga opposition once again, in keeping with every season they have been involved in the tournament.
Guardiola was at the Camp Nou, watching from the stands as the manager of Bayern Munich, the last time City were there and the occasion is still memorable for the moment Lionel Messi slipped the ball through James Milner’s legs and the former Barcelona manager could be seen rocking with laughter. If the nutmeg is the ultimate indignity for a professional footballer, Milner and Fernandinho suffered greatly that night. Messi and Neymar seemed to be taking it in turns to trick their opponents.
City have played Barcelona four times in the past three seasons and lost on every occasion, with an aggregate score of 7-2. This is the first time they have met so early in the competition and they are probably entitled to feel hard done by when Group C will also involve Borussia Mönchengladbach, possibly the hardest opponent among the third pot of teams.
Leicester, in contrast, will be playing the third-placed team in last season’s Portuguese league, plus two other opponents with little reputation in the competition, and this is now a common theme for the side Guardiola has inherited. Last season they were drawn against Juventus, Mönchengladbach and Sevilla, the Europa League champions. The year before that it was Bayern Munich, Roma and CSKA Moscow.
Even in the year 2013, when the draw was slightly kinder than usual, City were still paired with Bayern, just as they were two years earlier. Or consider the opposition in 2012: Borussia Dortmund, Ajax and Real Madrid, the champions of Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.
On a more positive note Mönchengladbach finished only fourth in last season’s Bundesliga, losing 13 out of their 34 games and finishing 33 points behind Bayern, while City should not be too alarmed about the fixtures with Celtic – two games, incidentally, when Uefa’s rules stipulate there is nothing to stop the on-loan Patrick Roberts turning out against his parent club. Celtic tend to raise their game in the so-called Battle of Britain fixtures but Guardiola’s main concern will inevitably be facing Barcelona, a tie that will also have Joe Hart’s replacement, Claudio Bravo, quickly reunited with his former employer.
As for the other Premier League teams, Arsenal should be confident of maintaining their record of qualifying for the knockout stages in each of the past 16 years, even if Paris Saint-Germain will be difficult opponents in a group that also features Basel and Ludogorets Razgrad, champions of Switzerland and Bulgaria.
This will be the first time since Blackburn Rovers had their solitary experience of the Champions League 21 years ago that England have no previous champions representing the country and, in the absence of Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea, who have nine European Cups between them, it is doubtful if the Premier League teams are viewed with quite so much caution by their opponents as in previous years.
Tottenham, nonetheless, must feel their chances of making it to the knockout stages have been enhanced by their own draw, having managed to miss any of the teams with realistic credentials of winning the tournament. CSKA Moscow were the team everyone wanted from the top seeds, even if it means a long midweek trip, while Mauricio Pochettino’s side will know it could have been much worse when they look at their other assignments in Group E against Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco. Manchester City, with their hard-luck stories, can testify to that, too.