Vincent Kompany’s eyes sparkled as he pondered the question of when – rather than if – Manchester City will win the Champions League.
“Eventually,” he said, “it will go our way.”
So anything less than reaching the semi-finals this season would be a failure, then?
“I always say the same – there is only one winner,” said the City captain. “All the rest are losers. Anything but first place is the same for me.”
This is the reality of Manchester City now, a club who will be judged primarily on their performance in Europe and for whom anything other than winning simply isn’t good enough. Winning two Premier League titles is one thing, but the edict from their owners in Abu Dhabi is that the Champions League is where they will be judged.
“The club is asking us to win now,” was Kompany’s matter-of-fact approach to the matter.
It matters not that City’s last-16 exit to Barcelona last season was the first time they have reached the knockout stages of this competition. It is also irrelevant that due to UEFA’s ranking system they are in one of the hardest groups, alongside Bayern Munich, who they face tonight, Roma and CSKA Moscow.
You do not spend approaching €1.2bn – as City owner Sheikh Mansour has — to simply compete against the best. You do so to beat them.
Pep Guardiola says City are among the ‘eight or nine’ clubs that can win the Champions League (“he was taking an amazing risk there,” laughed Kompany) but most neutrals would pick Bayern as rather stronger contenders. After all, they have reached at least the semi-finals in four of the last five seasons and have the spine of the German side that won the World Cup this summer. That said, their last European game was a 4-0 humiliation in this same stadium against Real Madrid in last season’s semi-finals, the type of drubbing that leaves mental scars.
This, then, could be seen as a phony war as two behemoths size each other up. But it won’t feel like that tonight, not when the other two clubs in the group are quite so strong.
Guardiola talked about Bayern’s ‘long process’ in building success, hinting they are financially hamstrung compared to clubs in the Premier League. That argument that fails to hold water when you consider their systematic stripping of Borussia Dortmund’s finest assets year on year but snide remarks about their wealth don’t affect City any more.
“You start a season at Manchester City nowadays and it’s not acceptable not to put all the trophies on your ambitions list,” said the Belgian.
“It’s a case of me and all the players looking at all the trophies and think we have to go until the very end of the season.
“Let’s take it in context – we are not favourites by any means for this competition but we would like to compete and challenge.
“Before we won the league it was more difficult to believe we could do it than with the Champions League.
“My experience of the Champions League is that it’s not more difficult to go to the end but everything has to be perfect. The Premier League is just a ferocious battle to the end.
“There is always a sign of us growing stronger. That’s all you can ask for in football. No team can expect a guarantee of going to the final. Only Real Madrid won last year and all the rest looked lost like we did. The margins are very small.”
If the margins are small then City’s absentees tonight could prove decisive. Their manager, Manuel Pellegrini, is serving the second game of a touchline ban and his assistant, Ruben Cousillas, will be in charge.
Pablo Zabaleta is suspended so Bacary Sagna will come in, although Yaya Toure has returned after missing Saturday’s game at Arsenal after arriving late back from international duty.
Bayern have problems of their own though. Franck Ribery is out, Arjen Robben likely only to be fit enough for the bench.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, Rafinha, Thiago Alcantara, Javi Martinez and Holger Badstuber will also miss the game, but Bayern are confident they can avenge their defeat to City in this stadium last year.
“They are more motivated,” said Phillip Lahm, Germany’s captain, when asked whether opponents’ attitude towards Bayern had changed after the summer.
“It’s not the whole team but there a few of us and other players want to prove themselves against us. Maybe there is some respect but we haven’t seen that.”
(3-5-2) Neuer; Alaba, Boateng, Dante; Lahm, Alonso, Gotze, Juan Bernat, Shaqiri; Muller, Lewandowski.
(4-2-3-1) Hart; Sagna, Kompany, Demichelis, Kolarov; Toure, Fernandinho; Nasri, Aguero, Silva; Dzeko