Who are City’s main rivals in the Champions League?
Barcelona? Real Madrid? PSG?…Manchester United? Now that all the teams have been confirmed for the round of 16, who will be Manchester City’s biggest rival in the Champions League?
Whilst they don’t carry the same panache as they used to (particularly under Pep Guardiola) Barcelona are finding a way to grind out wins when not at their best. They also currently lead La Liga, 8 points in front of bitter rivals Real Madrid. An in form Lionel Messi alone can cause teams enough problems, but if he can continue his excellent partnership with Luis Suarez then Barcelona may be just too good for most. They can be exploited in defence though as they’ve never properly replaced Carles Puyol, and whilst Lucas Digne, Samuel Umtiti and Nelson Semedo are good players, they aren’t exceptional. City’s attacking options could definitely cause Barcelona’s defence problems. Where Barcelona also excel is in midfield, and the partnership of Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets is a formidable one as they grab control of games. The game could be won and lost in the middle of the park, if City are able to stifle the supply lines to Messi and Suarez then Barcelona can be beaten, City proved this last season.
Whilst Real can’t get their league form firing at the moment they have shown glimpses in the Champions League. Real have won the competition 3 times out of the last 4 years so you have to believe they will be there or thereabouts at the business end of the tournament. Tottenham however have laid out the blue-print for beating Real. Spurs’ constant work rate and harrying meant the Spaniards could never settle properly into either of their group games resulting in Tottenham taking 4 points from 2 games with the Madrid side. Real are conceding far more this year than in previous years, and nearly threw away a 2 goal lead against Borussia Dortmund recently. The main thorn in the side though is Ronaldo, like Messi he shows no sign of slowing down and has just become the first player to score in every group game in the Champions League. This season does have the feel of a transitional season for Real Madrid as Zinedine Zidane looks to blood more youngsters in the team. This team now, whilst still spending heavily looks markedly different from the ‘Galaticos’ era, prospects like Marco Asensio are starting to mature and Isco has become a key player. Over two legs or in the final Real will be tough to beat, regardless of current form, the prospect of away trips to the Bernabeu is a daunting one as Zidane’s men just know how to get things done in this competition.
When on form PSG’s attack look breathtakingly good. The best example of this is their 3-0 win over European heavyweights Bayern Munich, which was an eye-catching result. The front three of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappé have been in terrific form this season and they’ve just set the record for goals scored in a Champions League group stage. The midfield of Marco Verratti, Adrien Rabiot and Julian Draxler have enabled the Parisian side to dominate the ball in most games, particularly in Ligue 1 where they are running riot. They did get their wings clipped slightly in a 3-1 defeat to Bayern, but they finished as their group winners. The main task for manager Unai Emery will be keep everyone happy in his star-studded team, as the combustible Neymar can get under anyone’s skin and Cavani is not the shy and retiring type either. City, like every other European team, would struggle to cope with PSG’s attack over two legs, our best form of defence would be attack in the hope that this would subdue and occupy their flair players in defensive positions. Mbappé has already shown City how good he is as he helped dump the Blues out of the competition last year, and to best PSG this year, City would surely need all their first choice defenders fit.
United have the uncanny knack of defending/hanging on for grim death and grinding out victories. This trait alone unfortunately makes them dangerous. In the knockout stages of the competition if United are drawn against anyone with attacking ability, they will try to stifle the opposition as much as possible, and look to convert what scant opportunities they create. Jose Mourinho performed this to perfection with his Inter Milan team, all the way from the group stages to the final they only won by more than one goal twice. United are difficult to break down and as shown recently against Arsenal they carry a threat and ruthlessness on the counter-attack. This weekend’s derby will be fascinating if only to see what approach Mourinho takes against Guardiola’s free flowing City, one can imagine he won’t try to fight fire with fire. Like every team mentioned in this list though, it is difficult to see how United would cope with City’s attacking movement. If drawn against each other, surely United fans would demand that their team goes on the attack? If they do that will only play into City’s hands.
Bayern Munich still have the capability to cause many teams problems, as City have witnessed first hand in this competition. They aren’t running away with the league as of yet and didn’t top their group but if they can get their key players firing, and if Robert Lewandowski continues his fantastic scoring record, they could be dark horses. Liverpool are coming into form just now and have scored an impressive amount in topping their group stage, whilst Mo Salah continues to dazzle along with an able supporting cast behind him, their defence is still comically bad at times. As good as Liverpool are going forward, they will offer you chances at the back. Tottenham have done brilliantly well to top a group containing Real Madrid and Dortmund, whilst they are stuttering in the league if they can recreate their performances against Real in the knockout stages then they could also be a surprise package. Finally Roma, like Tottenham, performed brilliantly to top a group containing Chelsea and Atletico Madrid. Ex-City players Edin Dzeko and Aleks Kolarov are performing well and Roma have the look of a side that don’t know when they’re beaten, as evidenced in their respectable draw at Stamford Bridge.
Of all the team mentioned, the biggest danger based on group stage form is PSG, however all teams look beatable. In the vast majority of group stages of this tournament they will usually be a team marked out as best avoided, maybe this year it’s City? Whilst it would be a blow for City to draw Real Madrid or Bayern Munich in the last 16, no team has the fear factor this year, and if anything teams will be exceptionally wary of City, based on some of the scintillating football they have played so far this season.