Ajax receives a visit tonight from Manchester City, a top European club in the making. Although coach Roberto Mancini’s team spectacularly won the national championship on the last day of play last season, things have yet to gel for The Citizens in terms of European play. After England, Europe is the next conquest.
After a close loss in Madrid (3-2) and a tie against Borussia Dortmund (1-1), England’s wealthiest club still needs to show its true colors beyond its own borders. Frank de Boer and his team had better be well prepared, since another early exit from the Champions League isn’t exactly what the Arab City owners are looking for. Last season’s UEFA Champions League adventure ended in the pool phase for the team.
Thanks to the injection of millions of oil dollars, several big changes to the selection have taken place in the City of Manchester Stadium. This led to the first English championship since 1968. The pressure to become national champion was greater than the desire for international glory.
This was clear during the UEFA Champions League pool phase, during which City was on automatic pilot far too often. Mancini also didn’t even send in his strongest team. The Premier League, as the Italian coach says, is the toughest competition in the world physically, so he gave his star players a break – probably too often. Bayern München and Napoli, both of which were at full power, punished the English team mercilessly for their lukewarm performances in the crucial pool games. The UEFA Europa League adventure also ended in the round of sixteen with a loss to Sporting Lissabon.
And then there was the controversy between Mancini and Carlos Tévez, which arose after the fickle captain refused to come in as a substitute in the away match against Bayern München at the end of September. The Argentinian forward was kicked out of the selection and it wasn’t until six month later that he finally got back into the coach’s good graces. Mancini, who has his hands full on a daily basis with the capricious Mario Balotelli, could deal with him at that time.
Despite that, Mancini has a true arsenal of top international players at his disposal, among which only Nigel de Jong left for another club (AC Milan) last summer. For a long time in the transfer window, it appeared that sheik Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan was keeping tight control, and that Everton midfielder Jack Rodwell would be the only acquisition of the summer. But on the deadline, the purse strings were loosened in Abu Dhabi and keeper Richard Wright (Ipswich Town), defenders Maicon (Internazionale) and Matija Nastasic (Fiorentina) and midfielders Javi García (Benfica) and Scott Sinclair (Swansea City) were acquired.
Of the six acquisitions, the 19 year old Serb Nastasic has made the biggest impression to date. Nastasic, affectionately nicknamed ‘the new Vidic’ in his homeland, has formed the defensive heart together with Belgian Vincent Kompany in most games. On the right, Mancini has the choice between Zabaleta and Maicon, two very experienced right backs with fantastic endurance. Gaël Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov are above average left backs. And then, The Citizens his has at its disposal central defenders Joleon Lescott and Kolo Touré, with a combined transfer worth of 41 million euro.
Yaya Touré, Kolo’s younger brother, is the undisputed boss at midfield. The Ivory Coast native, who was bought from Barcelona in 2010, truly has all of the assets that befit a modern midfielder. Javi García or England internationals James Milner and Gareth Barry play at the side of the African powerhouse in top matches.
The attacking impulses and artistic input come from Samir Nasri and the unbeatable David Silva. The Spaniard, who was injured in last week’s World Cup qualification match against France (1-1), is considered to be the heart of the club together with Yaya Touré and captain Kompany. In the position of deep centre forward, Mancini can take his pick from Sergio Agüero, Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli, Carlos Tévez or Scott Sinclair. Each of these players has a higher price tag than the average budget of an Eredivisie club.
Still, Manchester City has experienced a rough start. In contrast to last year, when the team won almost every match in the first few months and keeper John Hart seemed invincible at home, the national champion has squandered a surprising number of points. And in the UEFA Champions League, the English team hasn’t had a great start, either. In Madrid, City seemed poised to post a good 2-1 win, but at the last minute, Karim Benzea and Cristiano Ronaldo brought home three points for Real Madrid. At home, Manchester City escaped a fatal loss to Borussia Dortmund. After Hart had kept the damage to a minimum by making several amazing saves, Balotelli made good in the 90th minute from the penalty spot, tying the game.
But whether Super Mario sees action tonight or not is still the question, after he left the home match against Sunderland (3-0) in a fit of anger during the game in early October. The bad boy of Italian football didn’t agree with a substitution in the 55th minute. It was also during this match that Manchester City finally rose to the glory of last season. Interestingly, Mancini only used players who had been part of the championship team last year for this match against Sunderland. Perhaps this is a clue to his line-up against Ajax – a match in which both teams have a lot at stake.