City must be bold at Ajax - or Mancini could eventually pay the price
By Bradley King
Domestically, their collective boots may have been stuck in last season but when it comes to Manchester City in the Champions League, the Premier League champions have so far been quaking in them.
On paper, City's abundance of riches (in the playing department rather than the club coffers) is one of the most impressive in Europe - up there with those that Spanish luminaries Barcelona and Real Madrid can offer. Roberto Mancini's squad list may even include more strength in depth than any other continental team - a second eleven would be expected to win the majority of Champions League ties.
But ever since cash-rich City regained their place among Europe's elite last season, for the first time since 1968, they have struggled to make an impact. Despite all their bravado of world domination, Mancini's side crashed out in the group stage last season. After two matches at the same stage this year, elimination is again a realistic possibility.
Indeed, Manchester City have been a victim of their lack of success over the last 30 years, with UEFA coefficients handing them two difficult groups to contend with. After eventual finalists Bayern Munich and the exciting Napoli saw off City last season, Mancini could have been forgiven for keeping his fingers crossed for an easier hand to play with this time around.
More straightforward it was not. They don't come much more difficult than Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund are one of the most vibrant, young sides in Europe. Ajax, too, are no slouches, with four European Cup and Champions League wins to their name.
In their first match this year, City were massively unlucky not to come away from the Bernabeu Stadium with something to show for their efforts. But Cristiano Ronaldo's last minute winner meant that they did. Jose Mourinho's superstars weren't at their best that night, but churned out the three points.
Barcelona completed a similar job against Celtic on Tuesday evening, winning the match with the last kick of the game. They were under par throughout but toiled and were rewarded with the win. Likewise, 800 miles away, City's rivals Manchester United came from behind to beat Braga and emit a large sigh of relief.
On quality of players alone, City have as much quality as these teams. But they must learn to show a determination and a ruthlessness, perhaps even an arrogance, in Europe; not unlike that which saw them snatch the Premier League title in dramatic fashion on the final day of last season.
But playing with a swagger, particularly in the Champions League, is not Mancini's way. He was criticised last season for his negative mindset and, though his philosophy has been more positive this season, City still seem to be feeling their way around Europe - goalkeeper Joe Hart was the only reason Dortmund didn't leave the Etihad Stadium with three points earlier this month, which would have left City in a perilous situation.
Strange as it may seem on the back of a Premier League win, Mancini himself could soon be drinking in the last chance saloon. City's filthy rich Arab owners want the Champions League and are unlikely to want to wait around for it. Mancini has only ever reached the quarter-final stage, with Inter Milan, and was sacked for his lack of success with the Nerazzurri.
There are managers available who have a better pedigree on the continental stage, Pep Guardiola for example, and it could be a case of deja vu for Mancini, who was replaced by Mourinho at Inter. Notably, Inter won the Champions League in the following season.
But Ajax are a good opposition for City to assert themselves upon tonight. The Dutch champions have drawn five of their opening nine Eredivisie matches and are not the force of yesteryear. With City likely to need two wins from the two matches against Ajax, the likes of David Silva, Yaya Toure and Carlos Tevez will need to showcase their world class talents.
And to send a statement to Europe, City need to stamp their authority in Amsterdam on Tuesday evening - ideally in their finest, size 12, steel toe cap Doc Marten boots. Otherwise, Mancini could be facing the boot himself.