With the draw for the group stage of the Champions League having been made on Thursday, Manchester City and their fans alike will feel at ease, not only with the teams they’re up against, but with the teams rivals Manchester United and Liverpool have to play as well. With one familiar foe, and two new ones, I’ll be breaking down each side that lies in wait for the Blues…
Oblasny SportKomplex Metalist – 40,003 capacity
Despite it being the only ground City have already visited, last season’s away fixture was possibly the best example of a dead rubber game there’s ever been, so no doubt more City fans will be making the trip to Kharkiv this time round.
Shakhtar enjoyed a very successful 2017/18 season under the leadership of Paulo Fonseca, winning the Ukrainian League, Ukrainian Cup and Super Cup in a treble winning campaign that saw them play a possession-based style of football, with similarities to the way Pep Guardiola sets his City side up. The system paid dividends as well with Shakhtar only losing 5 games domestically. City fans will be familiar with their performances in the Champions League last season, after they give us a good game at the Etihad and beat a weakened City side in the return fixture. They demonstrated that they’re no pushovers and consequently finished second in our group which contained Maurizio Sarri’s virtuoso Napoli side. Roma proved just too much for them in the Round of 16 as they were eliminated on away goals, but they’re certainly not a side City should be taking for granted.
Players to watch
With club top goal scorer Facundo Ferreyra joining Benfica in the summer and the highly sought-after Fred joining United, Shakhtar’s 30-year-old Brazilian right winger Marlos is definitely the one to watch as their second top scorer with an impressive 22 from the wing, and after assisting both goals in their 2-1 win over City he’s certainly the creative outlet that Pep will want to subdue.
Another player you can add to the enumeration of Brazilian imports into the club is the highly rated Maycon who has just joined the Ukrainian Champions after being linked with some of Europe’s biggest clubs. A midfielder with an eye for goal from range and a sixth sense of knowing when to arrive in the box, Fernandinho will have to keep tabs on him.
Parc Olympique Lyonnais – 59,186 capacity
Located in the Decines-Charpieu area of Lyon, the ground opened recently in 2016 and is an exemplar of a modern-day football home, worthy of hosting Champions League games.
Lyon have been slowly building a formidable side that has seen them climb higher in the table each year, and last time out Bruno Genesio took them to 3rd in the league despite losing his best player in Alexandre Lacazette. In domestic cups they mustered a Round of 16 exit and a quarter final exit, and in the Europa League they didn’t manage much better, although it’s hard to accurately measure a team’s ability in that tournament as many sides treat it as an expendable competition. Lyon are a side with as much European pedigree as City with their highest finish being the semi-finals, so they’re not to be taken lightly.
Players to watch
Manchester United flop Memphis Depay was being disregarded as a failure only 18 months ago, but after finishing as Lyon’s league top scorer, and scoring some outrageous goals whilst doing so, he’s certainly rejuvenated his career, and on Europe’s biggest stage he’ll want to show the world what he can do again, especially against his old club’s rivals.
Finishing club top scorer in all competitions however was the highly rated Nabil Fekir. After making a few City fans happy by snubbing Liverpool’s approach for him in the summer, he’s the one player who could make us feel the complete opposite if he performs on the night, a fantastic dribbler who is capable of producing passes and finishes that take the opposition by surprise, he’s definitely the focal point of that Lyon side.
In addition to these two players, perhaps a less threatening but more interesting player will take centre stage as ex-City defender Jason Denayer will be up against Sergio Aguero in two games where the club that gave him a career could also end it. These next three months will be a coming of age for Denayer and he’ll be hoping to show the level of maturity that is so common for centre halves that have worked under Guardiola.
WIRSOL Rhein-Neckar-Arena – 30,150 capacity
The smallest of the three grounds City will visit, the compact nature of the stadium combined with German home fans can only make for the best atmosphere of the lot, this would definitely be my pick of the games to go to.
Hoffenheim finished a respectable 3rd in the Bundesliga last season, courtesy of one of the most beloved hipster managers in Julian Nagelsmann, who despite being just 31 years old, has knowledge of the game that exceeds his age. His teams rely on creating overloads through the lines, much like City do, and he favours a back five with his attackers staying fairly central, off the ball his team presses in typical German fashion, so don’t expect a walk in the park when we do play there – it should be an interesting tactical spectacle. Having failed to qualify for the Champions League last season after cruelly being matched against finalists Liverpool, they’ll undoubtedly be eager to put that right this time round and give it a good go against three very accomplished sides.
Players to watch
At the heart of their midfield is Kerem Demirbay, a player that has performed well enough to earn himself call ups to the German national team. An expert passer of the ball with impressive technical ability for his height, he’s the type that’d look right at home in this City side.
I’d keep an eye on former Leicester City striker and World Cup finalist Andrej Kramaric who is very much the main man now their top scorer last season Mark Uth departed for Schalke. If a goals coming it’s coming from him.
All in all, it’s a fantastic group for City, a nice mixture of good away trips and interesting matches, but nothing that should present too much of a challenge for the Blues. It keeps our fixture list fairly uncomplicated leading up to November, whereas Liverpool will be travelling to Naples days before playing us and United will be in Turin the game before the derby.