A fair share of us are growing tired of hearing Roberto Mancini make excuses for his team’s poor performance in the Champions League, both this year as well as the previous season. He continues to contribute a large chunk of his contingent’s losses to inexperience and argues that his side needs more time. Mancini was quoted recently in the press defending his club’s poor Champions League record:
“In the Champions League there are Real Madrid, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Milan, Chelsea and Manchester United. They are more experienced than us, yes? Perfect.”
“We are only in our second year in the Champions League. Perhaps we need more experience as a club, as a team, but not as players, as we have a lot who have played in the Champions League many times. (Quotes courtesy of the Mirror).
Mancini rightly admits that while some of his players have individual experience at the prestigious club competition, they are short on team experience. Key players such as Yaya Toure (won the Champions League with Barcelona), Carlos Tevez (won it with United), Mario Balotelli (won it with Inter), Kolo Toure (played in the competition with Arsenal), Sergio Aguero (played in the CL with Atletico Madrid), Edin Dzeko (with Wolfsburg), David Silva (with Valencia) and Gael Clichy (with Arsenal) and Samir Nasri (with Arsenal), all share varying degrees of experience, yet they have never played as a cohesive unit at this level.
But does ‘team experience’ really matter?
The City boss recently hinted it may take a decade before his team is successful in the UEFA club competition by drawing a comparison with Chelsea.
“We’re a good team but we’re not ready in the Champions League, like the other teams. Chelsea tried for 10 years to win the Champions League. They were probably the best team in Europe for 10 years and they won it [last May] after 10 years, probably when they didn’t deserve to. They deserved to win it three or four years before. The Champions League is like this. If we win our next three games, then fantastic … anything can happen. But the road is very long.”
Mancini conflates winning the ultimate prize with displaying a decent effort. While it’s true that it took Chelsea many years before they were crowned champions, within that decade the team fared remarkably well in the face of what Mancini describes as the absence of team experience.
The argument here is not whether City is going to win the CL trophy (that is arguably somewhat unrealistic), but more on the team’s shoddy group stage performances. No one expects the Blues to immediately bring home Big Cup, but for a team of their caliber is it too much to ask for at least a top-two group finish?
If we use Chelsea as an example (which Mancini does), then team experience, at least as far as progression in the tournament, doesn’t matter.
In 2003, Chelsea changed ownership with the arrival of Roman Abramovich, who gave then manager Claudio Ranieri free reign to spent over a hundred million pounds during that summer’s transfer window. Ranieri brought in the likes of Claude Makelele, Wayne Bridge, Glen Johnson, Joe Cole, Hernan Crespo and Damien Duff. The team’s makeup changed drastically that year. Even though having never played as a team before in the CL, they advanced as far as the semi-finals and lost to finalists Monaco.
City too has been adding and subtracting from their roster, most notably since 2009, with the signings of Carlos Tevez, Kolo Toure, Gareth Barry, Joleon Lescott, Gael Clichy, Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri to name a few. It’s true that as a group they played together in the elite club contest for the first time in 2011/2012, but as Chelsea’s example demonstrates, collective experience isn’t mandatory for Champions League success. Let’s juxtapose Manchester City’s results last year to that of Chelsea in 2003/2004 (both teams were inexperienced as a collective). Chelsea was one game away from landing a spot in the final whereas the Citizens placed third in their group behind Bayern and Napoli and failed to move to the round of 16.
This year, City deserve some pity for landing in the ‘group of death’, but then again City are the reigning EPL champs, and proved more than capable of beating clubs such as United and Chelsea during the regular season. Besides, last year the club was seeded in a fairly reasonable group and still failed to execute and let’s not mention this year’s dreadful 3-1 loss against Ajax.
Ahead of today’s game, Manchester City currently has a single point and sit dead last in their group. To draw another timely comparison, let’s take a glance at where Chelsea was roughly eight years ago around this time. The Blues were in their second CL season (2004/2005) since the roster overhaul. They were undefeated in the Champions League group stage and managed to repeat their incredible achievement of the previous year by advancing to the semi-finals, where they were defeated by eventual winner Liverpool.
It’s probably best if Mancini cease the Chelsea comparisons for now. It’s not that his argument lacks merit per se, because some teams do come to fruition with collective training at an elite competition, but reality also suggests that Champions League success isn’t limited to those sides alone.