Istanbul to Istanbul

Part 2 of City's colourful
European history...

It had been 24 long years since City had played European football...

As the Blues yo-yoed through the divisions, finishing in a European berth became nothing more than a distant dream and as the Club played out a final season at Maine Road in 2003, the ninth place Premier League finish for Kevin Keegan’s side was very respectable, but not the platform City fans might have hoped for to launch a new era at the City of Manchester Stadium.

But, by a twist of fate, City’s disciplinary record meant that the Blues were the highest placed side not already qualified for European football and therefore earned a surprise Fair Play UEFA Cup spot for the 2003/04 campaign.

It was a complete bonus to the Club and added a ripple of excitement for the season ahead.

It also gave Welsh minnows Total Network Solutions the honour of playing the first competitive game at our new home and with the top tier closed for safety certificate reasons, more than 34,000 watched the Blues coast home 5-0 and Trevor Sinclair score the first official goal at the Etihad (we had played a friendly and beaten Barcelona 2-1 four days earlier).

The return leg was played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and a 2-0 victory completed a 7-0 aggregate win and a place in the First Round.

Starved of continental excitement – South Wales hadn’t quite done the trick – City were then paired with Lokeren and after a narrow 3-2 win at the City of Manchester Stadium, some 5,000 Blues travelled to the sleepy Belgian town effectively taking over the village in the process!

For many, it was a completely new experience and offered an exciting glimpse into the future.

Nicolas Anelka’s penalty secured a 1-0 win that evening, but the next opponents – Polish side Groclin Dyskobolia - proved dogged opposition and their 1-1 draw in Manchester proved enough to progress on away goals after a 0-0 second leg in Poland.

That was that.

It had been a brief, but enjoyable foray back into Europe, but Keegan couldn’t steer City to further qualification during his tenure, nor could his successor Stuart Pearce – though the latter’s new manager bounce almost succeeded - and would have - but for Robbie Fowler’s added time missed penalty on the final day of the 2004-05 campaign which saw opponents Middlesbrough qualify instead.

Sven-Goran Eriksson couldn’t take the Blues back to Europe, either. Though he had started well, City fell away badly after Christmas, and Mark Hughes took the reins.

Hughes lasted the best part of 18 months and was replaced by Roberto Mancini and the Italian, taking over in late December 2009, came within a whisker of guiding City to a first ever Champions League qualification at the first attempt.

As it was, Spurs pipped the Blues with a 1-0 win at the Etihad in the penultimate Premier League game and a Europa League place was instead secured.

The 2010-11 season saw European football back at the Etihad Stadium, but few could have predicted the seismic influence the group stage clash with Lech Poznan - yet another Polish side -would have on City fans.

At one stage, thousands of visiting supporters turned their back on the game, linked arms around each other’s shoulders and bounced up and down and captivated the home fans in the process… ‘The Poznan’ as it would be known going forward, had been well and truly born!

City reached the Round of 16 ,but were eliminated by Dynamo Kyiv 2-1 on aggregate.

Mancini’s side went on to win the FA Cup a few months later and in a twist of irony, secured a first ever qualification for the Champions League with a 1-0 win over Spurs – with an own goal scored by the man who had ended our hopes 12 months before – Peter Crouch!

The Blues had finally managed it – and would continue to manage it without fail every season thereafter up to the present day.

A difficult inaugural group stage draw pitted City against Bayern Munich, Napoli, and Villarreal but despite a valiant three wins and 10 points, our third spot in the group resulted in dropping into the Europa League.

That Champions League campaign was not without drama, with the spectacular falling out of Mancini and Carlos Tevez in Munich and Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp winner against Villarreal sticking in the memory.

The Europa League run was exclusively Portuguese, with City seeing off Porto but exiting on away goals against Sporting Lisbon.

Of course, the Premier League title was secured later that season and as champions, Champions League qualification, too.

The Blues were handed the dreaded ‘group of death’ for 2012-13 with Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid, and Ajax in City’s quartet.

There were notable moments, including taking a 2-1 lead against Real Madrid with five minutes remaining at the Bernabeu – only to lose 3-2 – and perhaps one of the greatest goalkeeper displays seen for many years as Joe Hart repelled a relentless Dortmund at the Etihad, time and time again, to earn a 1-1 draw.

The gap between City and Dortmund had been a stark reminder of how much the Blues still had to learn in order to sit at Europe’s top table and the Blues finished bottom of the group with no wins from six.

It was perhaps that lack of progress in Europe that cost Mancini his job and former Real Madrid boss Manuel Pellegrini was hired to move the Club forward.

And his first Champions League tilt suggested he was doing exactly that.

Only Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich spoiled an otherwise excellent group stage process, with the German side delivering a chastening 3-1 win at the Etihad.

City would win the return 3-2, but though another goal at the Allianz would have elevated the Blues to group winners, it seemed as though maybe the fact it was the head-to-head results and not goal difference that decided the final positions had not filtered through clearly.

City, as runners-up, drew a Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona and lost both Round of 16 legs to exit stage left.

2014-15 also looked to be heading for a dismal group stage exit, with City again paired with Bayern Munich as well as Roma and CSKA.

With four group games played, City had failed to win any of them and despite taking an early lead via an Aguero penalty against Guardiola’s Bayern in the penultimate game, the 10-man Germans rallied to lead 2-1 going into the last five minutes – until Aguero scored twice in the time that remained to win the game 3-2.

An epic, winner takes all 2-0 victory away to Roma in the final game saw the Blues scrape into the Round of 16 where, once again, Barcelona would be the opponents and, once again, the Catalans would win both legs to dump City out.

City announced that Pep Guardiola would be taking over from Pellegrini for 2016-17, giving the Chilean one last stab at glory.

For the first time, the Blues would top their group stage – despite losing twice to Juventus – and as a result received a kinder draw.

After seeing off Dynamo Kyiv, the Blues and Paris Saint-Germain embarked on an epic quarter-final tussle that City just about edged.

The first leg in Paris ended 2-2 and Kevin De Bruyne’s solitary strike at the Etihad set up a semi-final showdown with Real Madrid.

The Spaniards’ undoubted experience in the competition saw them largely control both games, a 0-0 draw at the Etihad and Fernando’s 27th minute own goal enough to see Pellegrini’s dream of glory ended by a 0-1 aggregate loss.

Enter Pep Guardiola, winner of two Champions League titles with Barcelona.

Could Pep steer the Blues to the promised land?

Pep’s City were a team in transition, getting to grips with the new manager’s demands and style and the Champions League group stage would be a reflection of this as the Blues set off on a rollercoaster of results, beating Borussia Monchengladbach 4-0, drawing 3-3 with Celtic and then losing 4-0 to Barcelona at the Camp Nou.

But a 3-1 win over Barcelona in the next game seemed to give the Club the psychological lift that was desperately needed – Ilkay Gundogan was on target twice that evening – and qualification was secured in the games that remained.

The Round of 16 resulted in a Champions League classic, with City and Monaco producing a pulsating first leg at the Etihad and City winning a thrilling contest 5-3.

It had been an exhilarating snapshot of life under Guardiola, but the Ligue 1 side’s 3-1 win on the return meant it was they who progressed on away goals, not City.

The 2017-18 campaign saw more progression.

City easily negated the group stage, with 4-2 win away to Napoli also seeing Aguero become the Blues’ all-time record goal-scorer- to set up a Round of 16 game against FC Basel.

As expected, Guardiola’s side eased through without too much fuss, but the quarter-final draw pulled Liverpool out of the hat – the last thing either set of fans or players probably wanted.

A controversial journey to Anfield where City’s coach was attacked near the ground seemed to unnerve the players, who would lose the first leg 3-0 and an even more galling second leg saw City beaten 2-1 at the Etihad, though that didn’t tell the whole story.

Gabriel Jesus put City ahead after just two minutes and when Leroy Sane seemed to have scored a second on half-time, the impossible comeback looked to be on – but the goal was ruled out for offside despite TV replays proving it being perfectly legal.

Liverpool went on to win 2-1.

A year later, City again were subject to wretched luck, drawing another English side – Tottenham – after again reaching the quarter-final stage and then seeing two VAR decisions go against us – one for a Spurs goal that struck an arm on its way into the net and the other a VAR offside after Raheem Sterling seemed to have secured a last-gasp 5-3 win.

That goal was ruled out, and Spurs, leading 1-0 from the first leg, instead went through on the away goals rule as destiny swung away from the Blues yet again.

2019-20 saw an increasingly-confident City easily win the group stage and then beat Real Madrid home and away in the knockout round with seemed like a statement of genuine intent.

Would this be our year?

Then COVID gripped the planet and, some six months later after football had resumed, the Champions League effectively became an eight-team knockout tournament held in Lisbon and was quickly ended by Lyon who beat a below-par Blues 3-1.

City fans wondered if our luck in the Champions League would ever change and in 2020-21, it seemed it might...

Guardiola’s imperious side would win 11 of 12 Champions League matches, seeing off Dortmund and PSG, to set up an all-English final with Chelsea – City had finally made it all the way to the final with a team that had looked unstoppable at times.

COVID restrictions were still in place and less than 15,000 were permitted to attend the final in Porto, but things wouldn’t go City’s way with De Bruyne picking up a nasty facial injury and Kai Havertz scoring what would be the game’s only goal on 42 minutes.

It was a sobering 1-0 defeat to a Chelsea side who had finished 19 points behind City in the Premier League.

Guardiola’s men dusted themselves off for 2022-23 and again, eased through the group stage before thrashing Sporting 5-0 in Portugal to effectively book a quarter-final berth with Atletico Madrid.

Over two bruising, unforgiving legs, City edged into the semi-finals with a 1-0 aggregate win – next up would be Atleti's neighbours Real Madrid.

So dominant were City in the first leg against Real, that it looked like a final berth might be all-but secured ahead of the return clash in Spain.

In the end, the Blues won 4-3, which flattered Los Blancos somewhat. But they had dug in, clawed their way back and did what they had done so many times before in a competition they excelled in.

The events of the second leg would undoubtedly become the bedrock to this season’s determined run to the final, as City led 1-0 with a couple of minutes remaining, only to concede twice in a minute and then again in extra time.

One moment a second final was seconds away, the next it had gone in a flash and it was hard to take.

It felt like a slug in the guts, but it was actually a firm uppercut from a wily old opponent who would go on to beat Liverpool in the final. City could learn much from such opposition.

Finally, the 2022-23 season…

The pain of the Bernabeu loss the previous May seemed to be driving this wonderful group of Manchester City players towards the final, but when Bayern Munich and then Real Madrid were drawn as the quarter-final and potential semi-final opponents, the Blues knew they would have to reach the final the hard way.

To be the best, you must beat the best...

A Bayern side who had steamrollered PSG, Barcelona and Inter on their journey, were mercilessly dispatched 3-0 at the Etihad and 4-1 on aggregate, setting up a repeat clash of 12 months before.

This time, it would be different, and the first leg would be at the Bernabeu, not the Etihad. - and that would make a huge difference.

A hard-fought 1-1 draw was earned in the Spanish capital before City flexed their muscles in the return with a quite superb 4-0 win over Carlo Ancelotti's side, booking our second Champions League final, this time against Inter.

In 1968, Malcolm Allison claimed City would terrify Europe – and Pep himself has said that the Club will win this competition, one day.

Could his side finally be on the verge of making that statement a fact?

We will know more late on Saturday evening, where City’s Champions League destiny will be decided in Istanbul, where our European adventures first began 55 years ago…