.

This being Manchester City, it is far too early to make assumptions – but it looks like City are now clear favourites to secure the final Champions League place. There has even been talk of usurping Arsenal for 3rd place, but that seems unlikely, especially after their recent 1-0 victory over Manchester United. City still have to play Spurs at home, and it was the same fixture late last season that wrecked City’s Top Four hopes. That is why many City fans are praying for a nice lead over Spurs going into that game, especially with a Cup Final just a few days later. As it has turned out, City will be ahead of Spurs after they play each other, whatever the results between now and then. If City beat Spurs, a Top Four finish is guaranteed irrelevant of all other results this season. The bookmakers seem sure – City are 1/66 to finish in a Top Four spot.

Finishing 4th is only half the job done though. It would require winning a qualifier in August to qualify for the group stage. And with City having a poor coefficient rating, they may be unseeded and face a tough game against the likes of Villarreal or Bayern Munich.Or will they?

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about the level of opposition City would face. Some have said City will be poorly seeded and get a tough draw. Some have said they are definitely seeded. Some have said they are currently seeded, but the qualifying round before City enter the fray might result in more seeds joining the draw, pushing City out. Or some have maintained it will definitely be a completely open draw. So who knows??

The one thing that is certain is that it will be a lot tougher than the qualifying draw City got in the Europa League last season, when fans knew beforehand that they would play either Timisoara, PAOK of Greece, Motherwell, Lausanne, Mogilev of Bulgaria or Györ of Hungary.

Of course City are now used to playing European football, but the Champions League is a clear step up in prestige. City are the “biggest” team never to have qualified for the competition. The Europa League would have been a worthy trophy to win (any trophy would be), but it felt like a strain that affected league form.

Many City fans have argued this season over priorities. City finishing 4th was seen by many as a greater priority than winning their first trophy in 35 years. For City’s owners, it has been widely reported that Mancini’s job relies on gaining Champions League football. The reasons are fairly obvious – with the onset of the financial fair play rules, City need to generate more income if they are to continue to spend, and the Champions League brings in huge amounts of money if you can progress through it. It also adds to the prestige of the club, and makes attracting the world’s best players a far easier prospect. Tottenham Hotspur now face the prospect of not qualifying for Europe at all. Harry Redknapp has stressed this should not affect their ability to attract players, as the accumulation of money alone is most players’ main incentive in life, but it will be interesting to see if Redknapp can keep hold of the likes of Modric and Bale.

Europe-bound

If City finishes in the top four, then as mentioned it would probably keep Roberto Mancini in a job (ignoring spurious rumours of a possible move to Juventus). And whilst not all City fans are completely supportive of him just yet, for him to remain at City provides two things the club has lacked for decades – stability and continuity. If he delivers the FA Cup too, then he will go down in City fans’ eyes as an all-time legend, irrelevant of the money spent. A trophy is a trophy, after all.

Things have moved so fast at the club over the past couple of years (though still not fast enough for some) that it will be hard to imagine European nights against the likes of Barcelona or AC Milan. Of course this is a romantic view of the competition – many games, in the group stages at least, are against teams no more illustrious than teams City have already played over the past few years – let’s not forget this season’s Europa League threw up two games against Juventus.Only this week, Manchester United are playing Schalke in the semi-final of the Champions League, a Schalke team seemingly no better than when City won there 2-0 a couple of years ago, and a Schalke team in a lower league position in the German league than when they faced City. For many outsiders, the Champions League is often pretty dull. Like any competition that includes group stages, it can be processional, and devoid of many shocks (the lifeblood of a cup competition surely?). The latter stages can be nervy, and even duller than early group games with the stakes so high, as seen by the semi-final between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Nevertheless, the opportunity for City fans to see their team take part must be an exciting thought.

Perhaps some fans would take a domestic trophy for now over a European trophy, and even more would take the Premiership title over anything else. But European football has a special mystique about it, a touch of glamour away from the “bread-and-butter” of domestic football, and it will be fascinating to see City pit their wits with the best in Europe. When City were taken over just a couple of years ago, they won every one of life’s lotteries all at once. Soon, the City fans, many of whom have never experienced success at the top level, should see the result of the massive investment, and any City fan would have to have a heart of stone not to be excited at what lies ahead.

– Howard Hockin

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