Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini believes his team can re-write Champions League history with the greatest comeback the tournament has seen. No side has ever lifted the trophy after picking up just two points from their first three group games, and the Blues face a do-or-die clash with CSKA Moscow at the Etihad Stadium tonight.
The only team to win the competition after failing to win their opening three group games were Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan outfit in 2009-10 – but they drew all three games, and so were a point better of than City at the same stage.
A defeat at Bayern Munich, plus draws at home to Roma and away to CSKA has led some to again write the Blues off.
But a win tonight, and anything but a Roma victory in Munich, would put their destiny back in their own hands.
The odds are stacked against the Blues, especially as they have been uninspiring in their three games so far.
But Pellegrini feels his team can still qualify – and once that happens, they are back in with a chance of winning the trophy.
“Of course our target is always to try and win the Champions League,” said Pellegrini. “We must put in our mind that we are able to do it, that we have a good squad.
“Maybe there are also five or six squads better than our squad or the same level as our squad that also want to do it but with a winning mentality and an ambitious mind, you must always think you can do it. I think we have time to prove it.”
Most onlookers see tonight’s game as a win-or-bust affair, but Pellegrini refused to place that high a value on it.
“I don’t think it is sudden death,” he said. “We must win this game because we have just two points and we have three games to play and it is very important to have more points.
“We will consider it not a final game but a very, very important game.”
In 2009-10, Inter drew their opening three games – against Barcelona, Dynamo Kiev and Rubin Kazan, and were bottom of their group at this stage.
But they beat Kiev away and Rubin at home, and despite losing at Barcelona, went through – and then saw off Chelsea, CSKA Moscow, and Barcelona before beating Bayern Munich in the final.
If Bayern beat Roma tonight, City will go through with two wins and a draw from their last three, but Pellegrini is not bothering with the computations.
Asked if his side need to win their last three, Pellegrini said: “We don’t know. It will depend what the other teams do also.
“It is impossible to be sure but I think this group will be decided in the last game in Italy against Roma. We will see what happens – we are going to try to win our two games at home and see what the other teams do but I am sure this will be decided in the last game.
“Our three games in the Champions League were strange games, I think. We were very unlucky to lose against Bayern Munich, the most difficult game of the group, in the last minute with the rebound off a set-piece.
“After that, here against Roma we didn’t play well and Roma were in a very good moment.
“And in Russia I think we played very well but with an excess of trust – we couldn’t win but we are planning to arrange that and I hope we will do it.”
City’s decision to sell tickets at two for the price of one has paid off, with a full house expected for tonight’s game, despite a ban on away fans as part of CSKA’s punishment for repeated bad behaviour.
Some felt the lack of an atmosphere in the reverse fixture, in Moscow a fortnight ago, might explain why the Blues switched off having taken a two-goal lead in the first half, and allowed the Army Men to grab a 2-2 draw.
Pellegrini feels that the backing of a large crowd tonight will help keep his team focussed.
“It is very important because I think always the players feel the atmosphere is in the stadium,” he said. “I think our fans will be behind our team because we can continue in the Champions League and it will be easier if we win tomorrow.
“Always, I say when we win a game here it is because everyone does their job – the manager, the players and the fans.”
The Blues go into tonight’s game with Eliaquim Mangala back into contention after he missed the derby victory on Sunday with a hip problem.
The big central defender was still suffering from some stiffness, but is expected to be in the matchday squad.
But the Blues will be without Aleks Kolarov, ruled out for at least a month with the calf problem he sustained in the warm-up on Sunday, while Frank Lampard is expected to be fit again for Saturday’s trip to Queen’s Park Rangers.