Thursday, 15 September 2011

Do Manchester City have a genuine 'Group of Death' to navigate?

In his debut article for The Football Front, Brett Curtis takes a look at this season's Champions League group A teams.

Every time World Cup groups are drawn, one of the first things many observers enjoy, whilst scanning through the illustrious names, is selecting a ‘Group of Death’.

The name, while overly dramatic, generally speaks for itself: it is the group that every other side looks upon breaking a sigh of relief, with the sides within it cursing that they will have no easy match in attempting to reach the knock-out stage.

In the Champions League, however, this generally hasn’t been the case. The expansion from 24 to 32 teams in the group stages over a decade ago has clearly made Europe’s elite competition a bigger spectacle, but quality was slightly sacrificed for quantity as a result. The group stages, then, arguably became a lucrative ‘warm up’ -- listen closely and I’m sure you will hear Graeme Souness utter “this competition begins in the knock-out stages” at some point in the next few months – especially for the big clubs and UEFA alike. Moreover, Platini’s recent alterations to the qualifying format have allowed champions and/or runners-up from ‘lesser’ nations an easier route in qualifying, with those finishing 3rd or 4th (depending on coefficients) in more competitive leagues suffering as a result, meaning the Champions League ‘proper’ has witnessed more debutants, in terms of clubs and nations, than before, with many limply exiting at the first major hurdle.

Two of these debutants this year are Manchester City and Napoli, who both finished 3rd in the Premier League and Serie A respectively. Generally, that sort of form in a major league would cement a club as a favourite to finish at least second in a group. However, while the Champions League looks stronger in general (or on paper at least) this year, there is little doubt that the aforementioned two sides have been handed a genuine ‘Group of Death.’ Both sides will also face four-time European Cup winners Bayern Munich and the 2006 semi-finalists Villarreal. A group containing four sides from Europe’s top four leagues is quite incredible; but clearly it is as a result of Manchester City’s and Napoli’s lack of European success and experience in recent years. This is in stark contrast to their group rivals: Bayern Munich who were competing in the Champions League final a mere 16 months ago. While Villarreal reached the Europa League semi-final last season, beating a certain Napoli along the way.

The ‘Group of Death’ completed its first match day on Wednesday; though it is obviously early days in the group. There were some interesting points to take from the two matches’ patterns of play, and of course results. It is Bayern Munich that take the early initiative after a comfortable 2-0 win at Villarreal, prior to which the Spanish side hadn’t lost their last nine European home matches.

Tactically, a slight change from their standard 4-2-2-2 to a more defensive 4-3-1-2 system may well have been their downfall; though Bayern achieving 54% possession away from home, as well as attempting twice as many shots, would suggest this was well and truly an off-day for the El Submarino. Though I would not rule them out entirely, I do feel that they are currently the weakest side in this group; but I expect them to improve on this defeat nonetheless.

Manchester City and Napoli, meanwhile, gained a point each after an entertaining 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium. After this impressive draw, those looking for a dark horse within this group should probably favour Napoli over Villarreal. Last season, despite finishing behind Inter, they were Milan’s closest title competitor throughout much of the season, before falling away towards the end of the season. Perhaps this was a result of the demands of their relatively unique 3-4-3 formation, which requires an intense pressing game and maximum effort from all of its components. However, it is certainly one that suits the majority of its players -- in stark contrast to their Serie A rivals Inter, who are currently implementing a very similar system, despite possessing an ageing back-line that, equally, isn’t blessed with the dynamism in forward areas that Napoli possess. Indeed, a front three of Hamsik, Lavezzi and Cavani is surely one of the more complete and threatening forward lines in Europe: in Marek Hamsik they have a player that, despite sometimes going missing in big games, has the potential to be the complete attacking midfielder. While Lavezzi and Cavani are two strikers that complement each other perfectly, with the Lavezzi’s ball-carrying skills and admirable work rate working off Cavani’s link-up play both provide a genuine goal-threat. On the counter-attack, the three of them, aided by wing-backs Zuniga and Maggio frightened Manchester City all match. Of course, every front-line needs a platform to succeed, and those defending the backdoor for Napoli certainly have that – Walter Gargano is the perfect example, he and Inler also illustrating the importance of holding midfielders as they stifled the likes of Silva, Nasri and Aguero between the lines; which is certainly no easy task, as shown by the trio wreaking havoc in the Premier League so far this season by their contemporary in-roads runs and devastating creativity.

Bayern Munich and Manchester City will remain favourites to reach the knock-out stages: the German side, though relatively youthful, should have enough European pedigree and nous to see them through, while Manchester City now have one of the best and biggest squads in Europe following their gigantic spending spree in recent seasons. It says a great deal about the strength of these two sides when a ‘Group of Death’ can have two evident favourites – but when they contain players such as Lahm, Kompany, Schweinsteiger, Silva, Robben and Aguero it’s perhaps a little surprise. Both teams should qualify, as expected, but both may well consider anything less than a semi-final appearance a disappointment.

However, they must first qualify from this undoubted ‘Group of Death’ – and with the likes of Nilmar, Cavani, Rossi and Lavezzi waiting to hurt them.

It would not be a major surprise to see one of them failing.

This article was written by Brett Curtis, you can follow him on Twitter here: @bcurtis92 .Brett is a regular contributor to Football Speak.

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