Pep under pressure in Champions League as City start new tilt at trophy
As Manchester City prepare to launch their 2017-18 assault on the Champions League, manager Pep Guardiola will be well aware of the pressure facing him to make serious advances towards the oft-stated designs of the clubs ambitious owners.
The money lavished on player upgrades this summer speaks volumes for the ambition of Guardiola, the club and Sheikh Mansour. Champions League success ranks as highly as winning the Premier League.
Despite a sticky start in the competition, when tough draws came thick and fast, City's steady progress since 2008 means the club are now in a good position to press on in their attempt to beat the semifinal reached in 2015-16. That match, woefully tossed away without the semblance of a proper fight against Real Madrid, represents City's only foray beyond the round of 16 so far.
Although they are now the most consistent of England's representatives in this competition, since Arsenal's failure to qualify, they must push on to convince they are still anything other than slightly green and hopeful challengers.
The might of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus await them in the latter rounds and to stand a chance against them, City must put in a convincing pre-Christmas stint in the group stage.
Starting with this week's tricky-looking tie in De Kuip to play a resurgent Feyenoord, City have once again been pitched into a group that looks extremely even. Napoli and Shakhtar Donetsk are hardly mugs when it comes to continental competition and Guardiola's men will need to repeat their strong early league form to progress.
Feyenoord have started their domestic season even better than City, with four straight wins that see them out in front of the pack in the Eredivisie. Having eclipsed Ajax last season, they will be keen to impress on their return to the big stage they dominated briefly in the early 1970s.
City's Champions League history against Dutch sides is short, having played Ajax home and away and with very little success in Roberto Mancini's last season of 2012-13. Having lost 3-2 in Madrid against Real, City had been extremely lucky to draw at home to a rampant Borussia Dortmund -- they would go on to contest the Wembley final with Bayern that season -- and were then faced with two matches back-to-back against the Dutch champions, which would decide whether they had a chance of progressing or not.
In those two matches everything went wrong, with City well beaten 3-1 in Amsterdam after leading through Samir Nasri's opener and pegged back to 2-2 at the Etihad, thus putting an early lid on their ambitions for another season. Those were also certainly happier times for Ajax boss Frank de Boer, enjoying the kind of stage and backing palpably lacking at the more prosaic surroundings of Crystal Palace this autumn.
The 3-1 final score in Amsterdam represented the biggest defeat City had tasted in competitive European history until last season's 4-0 dismantling at the Camp Nou. In fact, the amount of goals scored in last season's run will be cause for concern for Guardiola. A total of 24 goals were scored and 16 conceded in City's 10 competitive games, which included a 5-0 play-off drubbing against Steaua Bucharest, another five goal haul against Monaco (5-3), a big win against Borussia Monchengladbach (4-0), a thrillingly entertaining draw at Celtic (3-3) and the aforementioned thrashing in Barcelona.
City's 5-0 humiliation of Liverpool last weekend points to a season where even more goals are on the cards, but Guardiola will be keen to stem the flow at the other end. With injury doubts once again circling around captain Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi's woeful lack of pace shown up by the trouble he got from Mohamed Salah, the Catalan's insistence on three at the back and gung-ho attacking may be tempered on this occasion.
Away games in European competition are perhaps not the best place to throw caution to the wind and a steady, successful start to the group stage is essential to take some of the pressure off. Guardiola only has to look back to the fateful season when City last played Dutch opposition to see how the club sank after a poor start. There was no coming back from the single point haul from the two Ajax games and City were eliminated at the group stage.
So the bejewelled story of Guardiola and the Champions League starts another chapter, 25 years on from his glorious introduction as a young Barcelona player in 1992, the season the club finally won the tournament for the first time.
As far as City's relationship with the Champions League goes, another tilt at the latter stages seems overdue. The long glittering road to Kiev begins this week at the gritty coalface in Rotterdam.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.