Manchester City’s win at Roma was an impressive statement of intent as they completed a superb recovery from their Champions League struggles to reach the knockout phase.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side now join Chelsea and Arsenal as they try to challenge Europe’s current superpowers Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
City have been desperate to demonstrate they can be a force in the Champions League. Now, after the impressive 2-0 win in the Italian capital, the Blues will feel they have made their presence felt before Monday’s draw for the last 16.
So, can the Premier League trio make further inroads into the latter stages of the tournament?
When Manchester City’s players walked off in a fog – on every level on a murky night at the Etihad – after a 2-1 home defeat by CSKA Moscow on Bonfire Night, it was shaping up as another year of underachievement for them in the Champions League.
Pellegrini admitted his players were suffering a crisis of confidence, saying: “We must try to find out what happens with this team in the Champions League. These are important players so I don’t understand why they cannot play in the Champions League.”
Six weeks later, it appears the puzzle has been solved with a mixture of all the factors needed to succeed in the Champions League.
Mistakes by Xabi Alonso and Jerome Boateng may have helped them to a crucial win against Bayern Munich – turning a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory in the final five minutes – but they possessed the world-class striker in Sergio Aguero to punish Pep Guardiola’s side.
In Rome on Wednesday came further confirmation that Manchester City’s side may just be coming to terms with the Champions League, and coming of age in a manner befitting the talent and experience assembled under Pellegrini.
City delivered a textbook European performance, even without injured captain Vincent Kompany, knee injury victim Aguero, the suspended Yaya Toure and with David Silva not ready to start.
It was a show of strength – from the vital saves made by goalkeeper Joe Hart to the brilliance of Samir Nasri, who scored a stunning and highly-significant opening goal as well as creating the second for Pablo Zabaleta.
Pellegrini and his players knew what was at stake, as well as the questions that would come should they fail – but they coped admirably with the pressure and will now surely enter the knockout phase believing they finally belong in the Champions League.
All of the uncertainty and all of the puzzling insecurities that gripped such a gifted group when placed on European club football’s biggest stage must surely be behind them.
It has been a big week in City’s season. The win against Everton on Saturday, following Chelsea’s loss at Newcastle, reduced the gap at the top of the Premier League to three points. They then unveiled their new £200m training complex – a monument to a club and an Abu Dhabi ownership of limitless ambition.
Best of all, though, as an indication of where City want to be, was the win against Roma.
And when those who top their groups look ahead to Monday’s draw, Manchester City is a name, along with French champions Paris St-Germain, they will eye with just a little trepidation.
If the Premier League is to defy the odds, and plenty would suggest all logic too, and bring European club football’s biggest trophy back to England for the first time since Chelsea’s win in 2012, they will have to overcome the usual suspects.
After the group stage, holders Real Madrid look the most daunting obstacle of all, based on the attacking powerhouses of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez and Karim Benzema, and fuelled by the supply line of Isco, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti is in search of history and his fourth Champions League title, after securing ‘La Decima’ with Real’s 10th title when they beat neighbours Atletico Madrid in Lisbon. He had already claimed the trophy twice with AC Milan.
And their performance in Group B suggests he has the weapons to do it. They set a new Spanish record with a 19th successive win in all competitions in their final game of their Champions League group against Ludogorets Razgrad on Tuesday night.
The 4-0 victory also made it 20 games unbeaten at the Bernabeu in the competition – a run stretching back to April 2011 – and meant they scored 16 and conceded only two in the group.
“I know that I have an extraordinary group of players. These results have been achieved by hard work and incredible professionalism,” Ancelotti said.
These are assets that apply equally to Barcelona and Bayern Munich, who will also have aspirations of reclaiming the trophy they have both won recently.
Barcelona, winners against Manchester United in 2009 and 2011, have built their renewed assault on the Champions League on a star-studded attacking line-up boasting the great Lionel Messi, Brazil’s Neymar and £75m signing from Liverpool, Luis Suarez.
It carries all the hallmarks of an unstoppable force when they get it right, as they did by all scoring in the 3-1 win against PSG on Wednesday. But the suspicion remains that Real, and perhaps even Bayern, boast more rounded, less vulnerable, sides than Luis Enrique’s team.
Guardiola, twice a winner as Barca coach, was haunted by Bayern Munich’s 5-0 aggregate loss to Real in last season’s semi-final and is determined to make amends. They made great progress through their group, including a 7-1 win away to Roma, but the loss to Manchester City, admittedly with a below-strength side, will offer hope to others.
Away from this trio, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid – seconds away from winning the Champions League last season – impressed again in topping Group A ahead of Juventus. But it will take a special feat for any of the group runners-up to get past Real, Barca and Bayern over two legs.
Can a Premier League club upset the rest?
The years when Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool were fixtures in the latter stages are long gone – but one man with great pedigree in this competition will believe he can make his own piece of history.
Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho won the Champions League with Porto and Inter Milan and will hold serious aspirations of becoming the first coach to win the Champions League with three different clubs.
Now, strengthened by the arrival of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, and with Nemanja Matic one of the most formidable midfield shields in Europe, Chelsea will pose a threat to the biggest names in the Champions League.
In the group phase, Matic made more tackles than any other player with 38, while Fabregas was only second behind Messi in the statistics of chances created, with 19 to the Argentinian’s 22.
Eden Hazard also has the talent to exert great influence. He was third behind Ronaldo and Messi for shots on target, with 11 compared to their 18 and 13 respectively.
These figures hint at the complete nature of Mourinho’s team.
Arsenal produced some impressive performances in their group, especially in beating Borussia Dortmund at the Emirates, but reality dictates they will not be seen at the sharp end of the competition.
There is the added hazard they could now draw one of those European superpowers having finished second in their group behind Dortmund. They could be pitted against Real, Barcelona, Bayern or Atletico. But Porto or Monaco would be more favourable options.
The same dangers apply to City, Bayern apart, but they look stronger and better equipped than Arsenal to take on that task.
If one game summed up the star attractions in the Champions League – away from the Galacticos of Real Madrid – it was Barcelona’s win against PSG at the Nou Camp. Sweden skipper Zlatan Ibrahimovic gave PSG the lead but Neymar, Messi and Suarez responded in a 3-1 win.
Messi has scored eight goals in the group stage, having hit 13 shots on target of 25 attempts. And, ominously for Barcelona’s rivals, Suarez appears to be coming nicely to his peak.
The Uruguayan’s goal against PSG was only his second for the club – his first at the Nou Camp – but the chance he created for Messi’s equaliser was his sixth assist in nine games.
Ronaldo, inevitably, was the spearhead for Real Madrid. As well as scoring five goals in the group, he led the charts for shots with 27 and also shots on target with 18. He combined quality with efficiency.
Those stellar names are part of a glittering cast – but what about those under the radar?
Shakhtar Donetsk’s Luiz Adriano outscored Messi and Ronaldo with nine goals in the group stage, including five against BATE Borisov.
And as Simeone reshapes Atletico Madrid after the departure of Diego Costa, Croatian Mario Mandzukic has, in his different way, filled the gap at home and abroad, especially with his five goals in the Champions League.
Now, as the Champions League moves into the knockout phase, will others from the undercard emerge to play their part?