It was a case of third time lucky for Manchester City FC as the English club qualified for the last 16 for the first time, finishing runners-up behind FC Bayern München in Group D.
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Manchester City FC came into this UEFA Champions League campaign hoping to make it third time lucky. After failing to get out of the group stage on their first two attempts, they looked to Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini – a man who had taken unheralded Villarreal CF and Málaga CF sides to the latter stages – to succeed where Roberto Mancini had failed.
On paper it appeared the perfect plan – Pellegrini's knowhow and experience combined with a squad of world-class talents strengthened further by the likes of Álvaro Negredo, Jesús Navas and Fernandinho – and on the pitch it is looking pretty clever too so far. City made it through to the last 16 at the third time of asking and they did so comfortably, winning five of their six Group D fixtures and qualifying with two games to spare.
Story so far
City kicked off with a 3-0 victory at FC Viktoria Plzeň but then came down to earth with a bump as their 20-match unbeaten home record in Europe vanished in the face of an FC Bayern München onslaught, the holders prevailing 3-1 in east Manchester. Yet Pellegrini's men have not put a foot wrong since. After wins in Moscow and Manchester against PFC CSKA Moskva, they ended matchday four with their progress secured. A home win against Plzeň kept alive their hopes of snatching top spot from Bayern and they came desperately close on 10 December, falling just one goal short after a dramatic 3-2 triumph in Munich.
It is tempting to name the 2-1 comeback win in freezing temperatures at CSKA as City bounced back from their home disappointment against Bayern. In truth, though, it has to be the December night they came back from two goals down to beat the defending champions on their own patch. Yes, both sides had already qualified but what a statement to send out to the rest of Europe – triumphing in Bavaria against a Bayern side who had just won a record ten consecutive UEFA Champions League matches.
Key player: Sergio Agüero
Pellegrini says he is the third-best player in the world behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, while Jamie Carragher, a UEFA Champions League winner with Liverpool FC, considers him the best striker in the Premier League. The praise is well-merited given his brilliance in a sky blue shirt this season. Already City's record scorer in Europe, he has power, technique, an impressive shooting range and an indisputable hunger for goals that has brought him 19 in 20 games this season. Pellegrini will be desperate to have him fully recovered from his calf injury for when FC Barcelona come to town.
Rising star: Álvaro Negredo
Fernandinho has begun to catch the eye in the City midfield after a slow start, but the rising star has to be Negredo, another summer arrival but one who hit the ground running in the Premier League and has shone equally in Europe. His partnership with Agüero has already become a major feature of City's game, but it is not just his link-up play that has caught the eye – the Spaniard has 13 goals already for the club, including their first-ever European hat-trick.
This is the total number of goals managed by City in 12 home matches in all competitions, of which they have won 11. In the Premier League they have scored six against both Tottenham Hotspur FC and Arsenal FC and put four past Manchester United FC. With Pellegrini playing two up front, the plan seems to be 'we'll score more than you' – and they are doing just that, averaging 4.16 per home game, which makes the round of 16 encounter with Barcelona such a mouth-watering prospect.
"I think Barcelona will be very concerned that they have drawn us. They are not the team of two years ago."
Bold words from Pellegrini but given City's current form, particularly at home, who can blame him?
Next challenge: FC Barcelona
(Home: 18 February, away: 12 March)
City have not faced Barcelona before but given their international dimension these days, they have some intriguing links with the Camp Nou club – notably through sporting director Txiki Begiristain and midfielder Yaya Touré, both European Cup winners with Barça. Begiristain believes City's firepower gives them a chance – "We scored in Plzen, in Moscow, in Munich," he said – but there is a flip side given they conceded a combined seven goals against those teams at home. Vincent Kompany's fitness problems and Joe Hart's dip in form have not helped so there is room for improvement ahead of the visit of Messi, Neymar and company.