The hallowed turf of the Champions League
The bottom line is that we will fight it out with Chelsea and Tottenham for Champions League football next season. There are three teams and only two places up for grabs. Its going to be tight.
Spurs are more or less neck and neck with us. I hope they go as far as possible in the Champions League because I feel that this may be their Premier League undoing. Van Der Vaart has proved an exceptional buy, and Gareth Bale has been a revelation this season. With Lennon on the opposite flank and the aerial threat of Crouch, Spurs remain a force to be reckoned with. They still have to come to Eastlands of course – a match that may end up becoming Part Deux of last season’s encounter. But we have vastly improved upon last year. Spurs will come and play football, and we all know that when this happens at Eastlands our chances of victory increase. You just hope that we can approach this game as full strength as possible, with the likes of Silva, Tevez, Balotelli and Yaya on song.
Failure to qualify for the Champions League this season will be a big blow to Mancini’s hopes of staying in the job. A 5th place finish will be unacceptable - we will have spent around 140 million on players only to replicate our efforts of last year. The counter argument will be that players need time to gel. There may be something to this, for me though it is no excuse. The spine of the team has been pretty much the same for quite some time now – Hart, Kompany, De Jong, Barry, Tevez. The additions have added talent, not taken it away. In many ways I think Mancini has tweaked rather than employed a wholesale revamp of the squad.
If we fail to secure 4th place then it will once again be down to our inability to defeat mediocrity. Too many draws against average but workmanlike sides – it will sound a lot like last season. And then the vultures will swirl once more.
But secure fourth place and we will be on target. It might sound arrogant to say, but the Champions League is now where this club belongs. Everything is being geared towards this aim, both on and off the pitch. It is so obviously the next step to take, but nobody allows you to take that step for free, so we must make ensure we take it.
Our continental adventure
Its been relatively plain sailing in the Europa League so far. At the group stage, the obvious threat of Juventus (including Del Piero, Krasnic, Iaquinta et al) surprisingly never materialised, and aside from getting ourselves turned over against Posnan we qualified for the knockout stages comfortably. The last 32 saw us come away with an awkward draw in the first leg against Aris FC, but we swatted the Greeks aside 3-0 in the return fixture.
Up until this point in the competition we have by and large played within ourselves. You sense that as long as we keep our concentration, we have enough to get by. Into the last 16 though and a tricky tie awaits. Our opponents, Dinamo Kiev, drilled Besiktas in the last round and have Shevchenko in their ranks (I believe he doesn’t have a bad record against us). So not only will be have to be on our guard, one senses that we might have to be closer to our best.
On the plus side, its clear that if we can navigate our way past
The Europa League may well be a good opportunity for Edin Dzeko to build up his confidence. The Bosnian is still adjusting to the rigours of Premier League combat and has still to find his feet on the domestic front. But the European stage, with the slower, more considered approach that teams often bring to the table, may suit Dzeko better at this point in time.
This is a real opportunity to secure some European silverware. It will not be easy – anything can happen in knockout football – but we have the strength in depth and the right players with top level European experience to do the necessary damage. I would be satisfied with a semi final birth at the bare minimum, but even then, if we do not reach the final I’m sure many will feel that this is an opportunity lost for a squad that could punch its weight with many Champions League teams.
A top four finish and Europa League glory will strengthen Mancini’s position at the club considerably if not for any other reason than that it will prove that the decision made by our Arab owners to jettison Mark Hughes for a more nuanced and experienced manager was the right one make. And there’s nothing better than having a controversial call proved correct. This return will be solid, watertight, irrefutable evidence that the Italian is moving us in the right direction.
Romance in the FA cup
The glory and romance of winning the FA Cup will be difficult to surpass. Providing we avoid an almighty cock up against
Mancini’s window of opportunity
Perhaps not even a 5th place finish and Europa League glory will keep Mancini in the job - the thinking being that it will have been unacceptable to have had so many opportunities to make sure of Champions League football and failed yet again.