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Champions League: Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City handed exciting draw for English clubs

Manchester City were yesterday ushered into the VIP area of European football. City officials sat quietly but euphorically in the Grimaldi Forum here, rubbing shoulders with dignitaries from Barcelona and Real Madrid, watching as legends of the game like Luis Figo, Sir Bobby Charlton, Paul Breitner, Lothar Matthaus and Ruud Gullit made the Champions League draw. And City were in it.


“The football club is making history,’’ said Brian Marwood, City’s football administrator after Roberto Mancini’s men were pitted against Bayern Munich, Villarreal and Napoli in Group A. “It’s the first time City have ever competed at this [Champions League] level and it’s such an exciting time for everyone connected with the club to be sat in a room with some of the best teams in Europe and the world. It’s a fantastic moment for the club.’’

Tuning in from afar, it meant everything for fans to envisage a Blue Moon rising over Europe. They have spent so long on the outside looking in, and now they are at the best football party in town. Marwood nodded at the mention that four days after United defeated Bayern to seal the Treble in 1999, City were embroiled in a play-off shoot-out with Gillingham to escape the third tier of English football. Penalties from Kevin Horlock, Terry Cooke and Richard Edghill, and Nicky Weaver’s goalkeeping, lifted Joe Royle’s team.

Now they are amongst the high-rollers in Monaco, watching greats of the game sending them on an epic European tour. “I’d have loved some of our fans to have sat here, fans who have experienced those wet horrible nights at some of those dark and dank football grounds over the last 15 years,’’ said Marwood. “Everybody knows the history of the club, it’s been inconsistent for a number of years.” And now? Billowing ambition fills City’s spinnaker, the club targeting success in the Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup and Carling Cup.

“Given how we’ve built the squad over the last three years we feel we can have a tilt at four competitions,’’ said Marwood. Asked whether City could win all four, he replied: “You have to start on that basis.

“Speaking to Roberto during the summer and talking about the players he wanted to bring in, it was an ambition of his to really compete for four trophies.”

For all the menace rippling though Group A, the technical and tactical challenges that await in Germany, Italy and Spain, City know that they were the Pot Three seed, the team with Sergio Agüero and Samir Nasri, David Silva and Yaya Toure, that everyone wanted to avoid. “That might show you how far we’ve come,’’ reflected Marwood.

Agüero can expect an emotional reception at Napoli, where his father-in-law Diego Maradona is still revered. “There’s some interesting connections,’’ added Marwood, “also Jerome Boateng who’s back at Bayern Munich.’’ City had to be considered genuine contenders for the Champions League, according to Chelsea’s coach Andre Villas-Boas. “Why not?” he said.

“They have joined together the best talent in the world this year. It’s something unbelievable. It shows what they want to achieve, and they have a winning coach as well, a coach who won three titles in a row at Inter. I don’t see why they wouldn’t have the drive or the qualities to go all the way through.”

City have experienced campaigners but it takes time to build the collective nous to prevail in Europe. It took Alex Ferguson’s United season after season, disappointment after disappointment before they clutched the Champions League trophy in 1999. If they prove quick learners, City possess the man-power and manager to threaten the European establishment.

Prediction? After a few nervy nights, City to progress to the knock-out stage.

Far from seeing them as pesky, noisy neighbours, David Gill was delighted with City’s re-emergence. ‘It’s good for Manchester to have two teams in the Champions League,’’ said United’s chief executive. “It’s good for the city.

“This does make it interesting. We are pretty confident of doing well again this year though.’’ No wonder. United were given a draw that should have come wrapped in a bow, dipped in Cologne and covered with felt-tip kisses.

Charlton joined Breitner in setting up a Group C pairing with Benfica, reviving so many powerful memories of the 1968 final. “One second he was talking about Benfica and the next he pulls them out of the hat,’’ smiled Gill.

United also have good memories of playing Basel, and a particularly fine Ruud van Nistelrooy goal in 2002, while the Oct 18 away game at newcomers Otelul Galati will be moved to Steaua Bucharest’s ground. “We don’t really know much about Otelul Galati but that’s the beauty of the Champions League, you get fresh teams to play against,’’ said Sir Alex Ferguson. He spoke with typical respect for the opposition but he could have been forgiven for throwing a street party. Prediction? United to sail through.

Group E represents a significant challenge for Chelsea.Mestalla, Valencia’s fastness, is hardly the easiest of trips, although it will be an emotional one on Sep 28 for Juan Mata.

Bayer Leverkusen have embarrassed English teams before, notably United, so Chelsea will travel warily, particularly as Michael Ballack will have the Germans fired up. Genk will be depicted as Group E whipping boys but are more than capable of nicking a point or two. Prediction? Chelsea to be too strong, too experienced and they will progress.

Reward for defeating Udinese in the play-off brought Arsenal a Group F pairing with Marseille, Olympiakos and Borussia Dortmund. Arsenal’s captain, Robin van Persie, listed the names on a tweet and then placed a smiley face. As with Chelsea and City, this group has plenty of pitfalls and Arsenal must take care. Prediction? With Jack Wilshere back, and judicious signings at centre-half and in midfield, Arsenal will progress.

Champions League draw details

Group A: Bayern Munich; Villarreal; Manchester City, Napoli.

Group B: Inter Milan; CSKA Moscow; Lille; Trabzonspor.

Group C: Manchester United; Benfica; Basel; Otelul Galati.

Group D: Real Madrid; Lyon; Ajax; Dinamo Zagreb. Follow it live

Group E: Chelsea; Valencia; Bayer Leverkusen; Genk. Follow it live

Group F: Arsenal: Marseille; Olympiakos; Borussia Dortmund.

Group G: Porto; Shakhtar Donetsk; Zenit St Petersburg; APOEL.

Group H: Barcelona; AC Milan; BATE Borisov, Viktoria Plzen.

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