Manchester City's Champions League hopes have long been neutered and splayed, but an unpalatable dilemma remains. Beat Borussia Dortmund and nine Europa League matches that could derail their Premier League prospects may lie ahead; lose or draw and their Uefa co-efficient drops like a stone, ramping up the chances of another brutal Champions League group stage next September.
However, ahead of Tuesday's game at the Westphalian Stadium, Roberto Mancini is insistent that City are better off in Europe than out. "It will be difficult because in the Europa League you play Thursdays so you don't have a lot of rest before Premier League matches," he said. "But we must try to play in the Europa League. We need to stay in Europe."
There is another, entirely rational, reason for Mancini's determination to salvage something from this season's campaign. If City fail to get a point against Dortmund they will finish with the lowest tally of any English team in the group stages of the Champions League. Even the widely derided Blackburn side of 1995-96 – who sparred with themselves more than their opponents and finished last in a group containing Spartak Moscow, Legia Warsaw and Rosenborg – managed four points. City currently have three. "I am disappointed not embarrassed with our performances," said Mancini. "We wanted to get to the second stage but we didn't play as well as Real Madrid or Dortmund. We should accept this and try again next year."
Mancini knows that City's hopes of reaching the Europa League are out of their hands. They need to beat Dortmund and also hope that Real Madrid do not lose at home to Ajax – a far from forlorn hope given that the Spanish champions have won five matches against Ajax, outscoring them 16 to one, in the past two seasons.
However, history is not on City's side. The last time Dortmund lost to an English team at home in Europe – a 6-1 tangoing in the 1964-65 Fairs Cup by a Manchester United side inspired by a Bobby Charlton hat-trick and goals from Denis Law and George Best – Harold Wilson was in power and Sonny and Cher had just got hitched. City's record in Germany – played five, lost four – hardly inspires confidence either.
But while history is against them, circumstances may end up working in City's favour. Dortmund have qualified in first place in Group D; they can afford to rest some players and experiment with others. Neven Subotic, who injured his pelvis during the 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich, is out. As is Dortmund's captain Sebastian Kehl and the defender Sven Bender. And there are also doubts over Lukasz Piszczek and Mario Götze, who will undergo fitness tests. When Dortmund drew 1-1 with Bayern Munich at the weekend the average age of their side was only 24. Against City it may be even younger. This certainly will not be the Dortmund team that repeatedly punctured City's defences at the Etihad only to fail to land the death blow before Mario Balotelli's injury-time penalty equaliser led to an unlikely point.
Even so, Dortmund's manager, Jürgen Klopp, is in confident mood, praising his players and confidently dismissing reports linking Manchester United with his Polish striker Robert Lewandowksi.
"I am not afraid he will be leaving," he said. "United are one of many teams showing interest in him but I have no worries. His contract is with us. The time when rich English clubs tried to take our players from Germany – thank God that time is over."
Klopp was just as enthusiastic about his side's Champions League campaign so far, calling it: "Great, sensational, fantastic. What can I say? I didn't think it would be this good."
Mancini, meanwhile, has been left trying to making the best of a bad situation. A place in the Europa League could be construed as a consolation. It may also prove to be a poisoned chalice.
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image: © Mark Freeman