The 2020 UEFA Champions League Preview returns with two more of the 12 sides left competing to be crowned Europe’s finest. In the miniseries so far I’ve looked at Atalanta and Atletico, Barcelona and Bayern Munich and Chelsea and Juventus. Now that means, alphabetically, it’s the turn of Manchester City and Napoli.
It may seem impossible to imagine a time when Manchester City weren’t the European powerhouse that they are today, but in reality they’re relatively new to the Champions League.
Rewind 12 years to August 2008 and that’s when things all started to change for the blue side of Manchester. The club, that had spent most of its history in the shadow of same city rivals Manchester United, was purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group.
But it was not until the 2011/12 season that City finally competed in the UEFA Champions League, the first time they would play in Europe’s top competition since 1968.
Hundreds and hundreds of millions of pounds, four Premier League titles, five EFL Cups and two FA Cups later and the club is still yet to achieve it’s endgame ambition of lifting the Champions League.
In 2016 one man was brought in with the sole purpose of changing that. A man who himself lifted the UCL twice as manager of Barcelona, and once as a player for the same side, Pep Guardiola.
Considered by many as the greatest manager of all time, the Spanish coach has as good a chance as any this season to finally bring the European success that was expected of him.
Not everything has gone to plan this year. Yes, they won the EFL Cup back in March, but Manchester City were blown away in the domestic league by Liverpool, albeit finishing comfortably second, and were recently knocked out of the FA Cup Semi Finals by Arsenal (managed by Pep’s former right-hand man Mikel Arteta).
Meaning, all that’s left to play for for Pep’s men is the Champions League.
City finished seven points clear at the top of Group C, after some dominant performances against Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb. The Citizens scored 16 goals in six group games to more than comfortably progress to the Round of 16.
Their reward for blitzing their group? A two-legged tie against Galactico’s Real Madrid (a side that’s won four of the last six UCL finals).
However, City turned up to the Santiago Bernabeu and played Real off the park, running out 2-1 winners on the night claiming two potentially vital away goals to take back to the Etihad.
However, since soccer restarted, City and Real have seen differences in their form. Los Blanco emphatically topped La Liga winning 10 of their remaining 11 fixtures, and drawing one (against Leganes on the final day of the season after they’d already been confirmed as Champions). Man City, however, has been so inconsistent. Guardiola’s team have shown themselves to be just as capable of trouncing aside 5-0, as they are to losing 2-0 courtesy of yet another defensive mistake.
When the two sides meet for the second leg on Friday 7th August, it really all depends on what Manchester City side turns up.
City can take solace knowing Madrid will be without Sergio Ramos at the back, who has been in the form of his life of late, due to suspension. But the way the game hinges, it promises to be exciting and the must-watch fixture of the round, expect goals!
Next is the turn of Italian side Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli, or Napoli for short.
It’s been a mixed bag of a season Gli Azzurri. They started the campaign under the stewardship of one of the best in the business, Carlo Ancelotti.
The classy Italian boss has won the Champions League three times and has managed some of the world’s biggest clubs (Real Madrid, Chelsea, PSG and Bayern Munich to name but a few). But this season in Serie A, things didn’t go well for Ancelotti and Napoli.
He was eventually sacked in December after the club found themselves in 7th place, 17 points off top.
But, the surprising thing about Ancelotti’s sacking is that it came less than THREE HOURS after he guided them to the knockout stages of the Champions League.
For all their poor league form, Napoli overcame a tricky group relatively easily. They went unbeaten (three wins, three draws) in Group E, which also featured Red Bull Salzburg, Genk and last year’s winners Liverpool. In fact Napoli became the first side to beat Liverpool in 90 minutes this season when they ran out 2-0 winners in September.
But back to the boss, the cool, collective demeanour of Ancelotti was replaced by a coach who in all honesty couldn’t be any more different. Step forward, Genarro Gattuso.
If you aren’t familiar with Gattuso, he’s the type of man who could start a fight in a phone box. Never far away from a red card, he was a tough-tackling midfield enforcer in his playing days. He somewhat ironically, perhaps poetically won the Champions League under Ancelotti’s tutelage for AC Milan in 2003. He won the competition again with Milan in 2007. Internationally, alongside Andrea Pirlo, he was a pivotal part of the Italy midfield that won the 2006 World Cup, so yeah, Gattuso has game.
Same competition, different manager, Gattuso’s Napoli were drawn in the Round of 16 against FC Barcelona – The Diego Maradona derby. The first leg at the Stadio San Paolo finished 1-1 thanks to goals from Dries Mertens and Antoine Griezmann.
Heading into a second leg at the Camp Nou is a daunting prospect for most teams in most seasons, but now may well be the best time for Napoli to find themselves in that exact situation.
Barcelona have been firing well wide of the mark since soccer resumed, whereas Napoli have only lost once since the restart (including winning the Coppa Italia on penalties against Juventus).
It’s set up to be an interesting conclusion to a fascinating fixture. I certainly wouldn’t bet against Napoli progressing, but they’ll need huge performances from the likes of Kalidou Koulibaly, Allan, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens. But, anything is possible and it’s worth keeping an eye on Napoli as a potential dark horse…