Pressure off as City start defence of Champions League crown

19 Sep 2023
Guardiola and Rodri lead image

Alex Keble looks at how reigning champions will fare as they host Red Star Belgrade to begin new campaign

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Alex Keble looks at the key talking points as Premier League clubs start the 2023/24 UEFA Champions League group stage.

Manchester City v Red Star Belgrade

Kick-off: Tuesday, 19 Sep, 20:00 BST
Red Star's last result: Lost 2-1 to Cukaricki (A)
Red Star's league position: 3rd

Champions League football at the Etihad Stadium is going to feel completely different this season. For the first time in their history, Manchester City know what it feels like to be European champions, and for the first time under Pep Guardiola, they enter the group stages without any pressure on them.

The burden was a heavy one, but now Man City belong to that exclusive club of European champions, they can feel emboldened to play with easy self-assurance.

The first one is the hardest, and it would not be a surprise if a relaxed City ease through a group that poses few challenges.

Their first opponents are Red Star Belgrade, who are called "Crvena zvezda" in their home country of Serbia, translated as "Red Star" in English. The visitors are unlikely to put up much resistance at the Etihad Stadium, despite the recent appointment of exciting young coach Barak Bakhar.

Bakhar took Hapoel Be'er Sheva to their first Israeli title in 40 years and then to the final 32 of the UEFA Europa League before leaving to join Maccabi Haifa, where he ended a 10-year barren period with three consecutive league titles.

Most recently, he managed Maccabi Haifa in the Champions League group stages last season, famously beating Juventus 2-0 but losing the other five matches, going down 7-2 at Paris Saint-Germain and 6-1 at home to Benfica.

Guardiola will be reviewing those matches with interest. Maccabi Haifa were very open throughout, taking the match to the opposition with a gung-ho approach that stunned Juventus, but backfired elsewhere.

“They are so aggressive,” Guardiola told Man City’s official website. “In some moments they don’t defend man-to-man, other moments they do. We have to be ready. They are quick in the transitions, with good runners.

“They play a typical 5-3-2 system when they attack, or a 5-2-3 with a lot players in the final third. We have to be able to read well what we have to do.”

Assuming Bakhar does the same with Red Star, Man City should cruise to a simple home win, especially given their Serbian opponents have lost each of their last two away matches domestically.

The signs are ominous then, and indeed so one-sided is this fixture that Man City are likely to rotate a few players in the hope of keeping everyone fit amid one of the calendar’s most gruelling months.

Pep to rotate?

Guardiola left Kevin De Bruyne and Rodri on the bench in a 5-0 home win over Copenhagen in last season’s group stage, indicating he is not afraid to take that slight risk.

Kalvin Phillips, Matheus Nunes, Sergio Gomez, and Rico Lewis will all be hopeful of getting a rare start, although in the final third, Guardiola is short of options to rotate.

Assuming Red Star don’t sit back, Man City fans can be hopeful of Jeremy Doku picking up where he left off at West Ham United, dribbling straight through them and scoring in a 3-1 win.

No matter who starts, Man City are very heavy favourites. The two clubs might have one European Cup each in their trophy cabinet (Red Star were champions in 1991), but Man City are considerably more powerful in the modern game.

'Why would I want to leave?'

Given that power, defender Kyle Walker - who last week signed a new deal with City - is looking forward to what the club can achieve during his three-year contract.

"Why would I want to leave this great team?" Walker told the club's official website.

“For me, it was just about the years [on the contract]. I’m 33 years young and I still feel great. For me it was about settling in. I didn’t really want to sign another year to then have this conversation again next year. I wanted to be settled not just for me, but for my family as well.

“I want to stay at this club for as long as possible, because why would I leave a team that’s gone on and won three Premier Leagues in a row, a Treble, and a Champions League?"

Also in this series

Part 1: Can Newcastle expose Milan's weakness on Champions League return?

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