"A fantastic moment for the club" is how Roberto Mancini described the prospect of Manchester City FC's visit to the Santiago Bernabéu. For the 3,500 City fans travelling to Spain to watch their team take on Real Madrid CF, that will undoubtedly be so as they live out another of those moments that would have seemed the stuff of dreams not so long ago.
Yet City manager Mancini is no wide-eyed romantic and his only thought will be to ensure his team improve on their efforts on their group-stage debut last term, when they ended up in third place behind FC Bayern München and SSC Napoli. "The group stage is difficult like last year and we start again at a difficult ground against a top team," said Mancini. It is true that City find themselves in the toughest-looking section alongside AFC Ajax and Borussia Dortmund, two other national champions.
Madrid is a tough place to start – just as Munich was for their first away trip 12 months ago – but it would be a major surprise if City were to fall at the first hurdle once more. Indeed Mancini believes the ten points they managed last year might see them through this time. They may have spent less than in previous summers but they have a formidable squad of world-class footballers and the self-belief engendered by that first league championship triumph in 44 years.
However, City's is, of course, not the only plotline among the English pretenders all bidding to reach a 'home' final at Wembley in May.
Chelsea FC begin the defence of a title won against the odds in Munich in May with an attractive-looking home tie against Juventus. The Bianconeri appear to be the Blues' toughest rivals in Group E, a pool also containing FC Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Nordsjælland. Didier Drogba has gone but Roberto Di Matteo, the caretaker coach who found the golden key, now holds the reins on a permanent basis. It is so far, so good for the Italian. Chelsea – UEFA Super Cup defeat apart – have begun the season in their usual strong fashion with Eden Hazard catching the eye after joining from LOSC Lille.
If Chelsea have their work cut out trying to repeat the 'miracle of Munich', things can only get better for Manchester United FC after their hugely disappointing 2011/12 campaign, which featured an early exit for the first time since 2005. Sir Alex Ferguson's side beat only FC Oţelul Galaţi as they finished below SL Benfica and FC Basel 1893 in their group.
It is impossible to imagine a similar scenario for United in Group H, a section containing Galatasaray AŞ, CFR 1907 Cluj and SC Braga. Twice before they have been to Wembley for the final – wining in 1968 and losing in 2011. The return of Nemanja Vidić to their defence after injury, and the addition of Robin van Persie to their attack, will undoubtedly help as they look to complete a special hat-trick.
Of course, United's gain with Van Persie was Arsenal FC's loss, but Arsène Wenger's team have so far coped admirably without the Dutchman – as underlined by their 6-1 thrashing of Southampton FC this weekend. Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski have earned early plaudits and, perhaps just as encouragingly, Arsenal have the best goals-against record in the Premier League, with just one conceded. All of which makes you think the UEFA Champions League club located closest to Wembley should have too much for Group E rivals Montpellier Hérault SC, Olympiacos FC and FC Schalke 04.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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