Manchester City, basking on their sunbed, waiting for the others to come back from their deep-water swim to join them for a session of knockout beach football, can survey the would-be European survivors and begin to make plans.
Those plans can already take reasonable shape thanks to UEFA’s myriad Kafka-esque seeding-and-sorting processes, which dictate that a team cannot meet a side from its own country, cannot meet a side that finished in the same position as it and cannot meet a side that contains any footballers with a name containing of any of the letters in the club's nickname.
- Pellegrini talks: Slams defence | 'Bring on big guns'
- Richards: Hart back to his best
As usual in these circumstances, that means just one thing: City will play Barcelona. Or, perhaps, if they are lucky, Real. Or, if they are even luckier, but in reality not luckier at all as these guys are a double bluff, Atletico. If by some small chance of UEFA coefficient skulduggery, it is neither one nor the other, nor even the other, then expect to be booking flights, trains and hovercraft for gay Paris and a meet-up with Zlatan sure to be headlined the Oil Firm Derby.
It is a deeply confusing and worrying time of the year, especially for those among us who have never experienced anything of this convoluted magnitude before. This correspondent feels quite bare, unsure whether to run and hide behind a bush or stand up and yell in full or at least partial nakedness “I know not what cometh next and I am surely not at all ready for it, but bring it on anyway!”
This is the notorious mentality that has brought Manchester City supporters so far in such a short time.
In full Mancunian spirit, City fans should perhaps pour themselves a large beer and settle down in front of the fire with a good novel. May I suggest the highly readable “Rules of Engagement: The Official UEFA Handbook for the Round of Sixteen” by Michel Proust ... er, Platini. In it, all of your deepest worries are addressed, all of your most thoughtful questions will be answered. Even that one about the goalkeeper and whether it is OK to wear a bobble hat.
Unprepared and unsure of themselves as they surely are, City’s support must prepare itself for Champions League knockout football, a death-or-glory drama smelling of expensive cologne and sophisticated cuisine. Small sausages on sticks and utterly unidentifiable seafood are coming our way. People speaking in forked tongues and urchins trying to sell us knockoff “official matchday magazines” with the club’s badge upside down on the front cover.
One must ready oneself for even more smartly suited gentleman wearing dark gray continental macs and strange-shaped spectacles, carrying sheaves of official documents as they hurry around having doors held open for them by statuesque women in official UEFA pleated skirts. There will be even more folk from strange places carrying cameras and small, delicately constructed homemade placards reading “We All Love You Jesus,” “Manila backs Micah” and “Track Back NOW, Kolarov.”
There will be strange accents in town, poking fingers in our baked potatoes and casting odd glances at our stomachs. There will be increased numbers of funny hats and foam fingers outside the stadium and the upswell of a thousand tiny voices as that Champions League anthem cranks into knockout-phase tumult.
One will swell with pride, shake one’s head and say to an anonymous neighbour, “Just look, unknown neighbour, at how far this club of ours has come.” “And us with it,” he will nervously smile in a difficult-to-place accent, as you wonder who the devil he is and where the usual chap has disappeared to. Someone else will not be able to contain himself from mentioning Lincoln City and The Law of Diminishing Returns. Another will reminisce, albeit briefly, of Frank Clark’s guitar sessions and the soothing effect they had on our relegation-headed heroes in 1997.
Among the buzz and confusion, the teams will already be out on the almost impossibly green turf, lining up like gladiators preparing for the slaughter of the innocents. Thousands of faces will turn toward the pitch, expectant, excited, slightly overwhelmed.
Then a whistle will sound, snapping all to their senses, and City will get absolutely tanned by Real Madrid or Barcelona. That’s the magic that awaits us all.