PARIS, France, November 2 – The Champions League group stage has reached the halfway mark but Manchester United and Manchester City are aware they have to raise their game after fluffing some of their early lines.
United are at least armed with the experience of three wins – including two in recent memory in Europe’s premier club competition as they look to overhaul Group C leaders by putting Romanian minnows Otelul Galati in their place at Old Trafford.
United edged out the Eastern Europeans in the pair’s last outing but the last time the Red Devils’ stepped out at their ‘Theatre of Dreams’ in the Champions League the outcome came close to being a nightmare as Switzerland’s Basel held them to a 3-3 draw.
Those dropped points following on from an earlier stalemate in Lisbon leaves United second in the table two points adrift of Benfica and only one clear of Basel – who nevertheless still have to travel to Portugal.
“We have to win on Wednesday, without doubt. We’re at home and I expect us to win and, if we do that, it’s in our hands when we play Benfica at home,” United manager Sir Alex Ferguson told manutd.com.
Manchester City do not have United’s experience of toughing things out on European evenings where even the top sides can wobble after hitting unforeseen bouts of turbulence.
But Roberto Mancini’s side will hope they got their wobble in early – held at home by Napoli and losing to Bayern Munich on an evening which led to the exile from the first team of Carlos Tevez.
And the Blue Moon has been rising ever since with Mancini’s men having destroyed United in last week’s Manchester derby but equally significantly edged out Villarreal thanks to an injury-time goal from Sergio Aguero to reignite their European dreams.
An ideal scenario would now see City complete the double over Spanish rivals who have yet to register a point and hope that Bayern can send Napoli packing in Bavaria, thereby allowing the Blues to leapfrog the Italians by two points.
A draw then in Italy on matchday five would put City on the brink of qualification – even if Bayern will provide a stiff final group test in Manchester.
With Tevez still seemingly in City’s out-tray for his Munich misdemeanours the enigmatic Mario Balotelli is reaping the rewards of more playing time – witness his brace in the humiliation of United – and he is likely to start at Villarreal after completing a three-match European suspension.
“Mario has experience of the Champions League with Inter and I think he could be important against Villarreal,” noted Mancini.
While Bayern and City’s group looked tough when the draw was made 2010 champions Inter Milan ensured by losing their opening match at home to Trabzonspor that if they went through to the last 16 they would do it the hard way.
Despite dismal league form – Inter’s home loss to Juventus at the weekend left them in the bottom four – new coach Claudio Ranieri has managed to turn things around in Europe and two straight wins have lifted the Nerazurri into top spot in Group B.
Inter now meet French champions Lille, who include Joe Cole, their summer loan signing from Liverpool but who have gleaned only two points to date – notably throwing away two more in allowing CSKA Noscow to come back from two goals down to rescue a draw in France.
A win for the Italians will put them even more firmly in the box, particularly if the match in Turkey between Trabzonspor and CSKA produces a decisive outcome to leave the loser five points off Inter.
Elsewhere Wednesday, Real Madrid, who have endured a decade since their record ninth triumph in 2002 in the days of Zinedine Zidane, will be out to push seasoned French campaigners Lyon towards the exit with a win at the Stade Gerland.
Jose Mourinho’s side have yet to drop a point to open up a five-point lead over both Lyon and Ajax, who face Dynamo Zagreb, three defeats already to their name.
Real have injury doubts concerning Kaka and Alvaro Arbeloa following the weekend win over Real Sociedad which left the meringues top of La Liga.