When Manuel Pellegrini sat down with Manchester City’s powerbrokers to discuss his plans to transform their club from Champions League flops into serious European contenders, he had no idea it would all begin here.
But tonight, in the humble surroundings of the 11,700-capacity Doosan Arena, Pellegrini’s credentials will be put to the test by Czech underdogs Viktoria Plzen.
It should be a simple enough start for City, even though they have failed to reach the knockout stage at their first two attempts in this competition, winning only once away from home.
Pellegrini’s predecessor Roberto Mancini paid the price for picking up a solitary point from his opening two games in both campaigns, but the opposition — Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Bayern Munich — was considerably stronger. Plzen’s only victory in this competition has come against Bate Borisov.
Pellegrini, 60 yesterday, knows what is expected. The Chilean was appointed largely on the strength of guiding Villarreal and Malaga to the latter stages of the Champions League, and he acknowledges City’s ambitions are far greater.
Defeat here would be a disaster and even a point would represent a setback considering that the next game is against champions Bayern and CSKA Moscow are the other side in Group D.
‘We have to win,’ said Pellegrini. ‘The Champions League is the most important competition. City want to grow every year, which means they cannot go out of the group stage. We must advance.
‘We managed it with two clubs before and with lower expectations but this is different. It’s clear that the responsibility at City, with the squad that was put together and the investment, reaches for a higher level in the Champions League and Premier League.
‘We should forget that City didn’t qualify for the next round in the last two years, and before that just managed to reach the Europa League. So it has been three years the club hasn’t done well in Europe.’
However, having produced his fair share of surprises in progressing with Villarreal and Malaga, Pellegrini will not take the Czech champions lightly.
‘It would be a big mistake to think playing a team with less history in Europe will be easier,’ he warned. ‘Last season, Milan and Zenit Saint Petersburg were happy to be drawn against Malaga, and they felt they’d already qualified for the next round. But Malaga went on to win the group.
‘We have to respect Viktoria Plzen, CSKA Moscow and Bayern Munich the same way. The team have to approach it in a very humble way, with the knowledge that the differences between the teams are very small.’
David Silva, Gael Clichy and Micah Richards all stayed at home when City flew out yesterday, but captain Vincent Kompany could make his first appearance since suffering a groin injury in the opening game against Newcastle. Although the euphoria of that 4-0 win has been dampened by a return of four points from games against Cardiff, Hull and Stoke, defender Pablo Zabaleta believes victory tonight and in Sunday’s derby will put a different complexion on matters.
‘It’s a crucial week,’ admitted Zabaleta. ‘Obviously as a team we can play better. Sometimes it takes a while under a new boss to know your job and get to know the new players coming in. But he’s a manager with good experience of the Champions League and now it’s a different challenge for him.
‘What happened in the last two years in the Champions League has helped us to learn about it and now we will hopefully be better.
‘I’m not saying it’s an easy group but if you compare it to the last two years maybe this is better. We have a great chance to qualify for the knockout stage this time.’ – Daily Mail