Manchester City may have muscled their way into the Premier League elite, but they face Bayern Munich tonight still searching for the scalp to turn them into a European superpower. Although the run of successive Champions League group exits is over under the management of Manuel Pellegrini, the appetite to secure the kind of victory required to turn heads was not immediately apparent ahead of the meeting in the Allianz Arena.
City have not yet delivered a performance in the presence of the Uefa grandees to shift the perception they are Champions League novices, nor served up evidence that for all the talent in their squad they have the capacity to win the competition at their third attempt. With a last-16 place already secure there is every indication Pellegrini is prepared to wait awhile longer for such a defining victory, but he will know a knockout round against a favourite is beckoning unless there is an unlikely score in Munich.
Rather than risk limbs in pursuit of the high-scoring win needed to top the group, Pellegrini is saving energies for the Premier League, most notably against Arsenal this weekend. It means there is a decidedly 'dead rubber' feel about the build-up to this fixture. City need to better the 3-1 defeat Bayern inflicted at the Etihad Stadium to avoid a potential nightmare draw in the knockout stages but will be without the suspended Yaya Toure. Gael Clichy and Matija Nastasic remained in Manchester nursing slight injuries. "It's an important game but we have qualified already," Pellegrini said.
"What is important is to improve what we did against Bayern at home. We didn't play well in that game. Tomorrow we will try to change the image of the team from that match. "One of most important things for us was to qualify for the next round before we finished the group so that it would not be decided the here in Munich. "Of course we are thinking about Arsenal but first of all tomorrow is very important for us. Then we'll see about the tough game we have against on Saturday. If you ask me at this moment the game against Arsenal is more important than the game against Bayern Munich."
What could have been one of the most attractive fixtures of the first stage is instead in danger of descending into somewhat of an exhibition - a few notches up from their last meeting here in pre-season but not much more consequential - with both coaches trying to convince a disbelieving public the stakes are higher than they can possibly be. Bayern, chasing a sixth consecutive group win, do have a record in their sights. If they win 4-0 it would be the most impressive series of group results in the history of the competition. Pep Guardiola's side destroyed City in their first meeting, but he believes others will be fearful of facing Pellegrini's side in the later stages.
"I hope our players understand just how much damage Manchester City can do. They have incredible players," said Guardiola. "I have told my players that second is not an option for us. This is a very different Manchester City to last year when they didn't reach the knockout stages. Anyone who gets them will find them very difficult opponents but I want first place and 18 points."
For City, the greater interest could be in the sub-plot of Joe Hart's latest return to the starting line-up. Hart played in the last game against Viktoria Plzen but is still waiting to be restored to full No?1 status. The feeling is it is only a matter of time and a credible performance in such an esteemed environment could be the catalyst for his restoration to league duties. Pellegrini has mastered the art of being non-committal on Hart's predicament, however. "It is important for him not to think about the past but think about the future," said Pellegrini.
I'm absolutely sure of his ability and I trust in him." Bayern head to the World Cup Championships later this month, ensuring they too have more pressing engagements. The last time City were here in this competition, a lengthy civil war followed between the manager and star striker as Roberto Mancini and Carlos Tevez's row was played in public. A more serene evening is anticipated tonight, City's often troubled three year period of acclimatisation in Europe formally ending in readiness for their first experience of the business end of the competition.