MANCHESTER // It is the biggest match of this Uefa Champions League round, of Manchester City’s season and maybe in the club’s history.
With all due respect to Bayer Leverkusen and Paris Saint-Germain, all eyes will be on Manchester City's match with Barcelona at the Etihad Stadium.
When Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bought the club in 2008, with a view of turning them into one of the biggest in the world, this is the type of game everyone associated with City longed to see. Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Alvaro Negredo taking on Lionel Messi, Neymar and Andres Iniesta. Manchester City’s first Champions League knock-out match could not have been more glamorous.
For football fans in the UAE, where Barcelona are idolised, loyalties are being tested.
Since it was set up in 2011, membership figures for the official UAE Sky Blue fan club have passed the 20,000 mark, with regular trips organised for English Premier League and Champions League matches. That dramatic title win in May 2012 helped, too.
During the past 48 hours, fans from across the UAE and the Arabian Gulf have descended on the city for the big game; more than 1,000 are expected by kick-off tonight, according to the club.
“When Barcelona were drawn against City, it was always going to be a huge game in the UAE,” said Salam Almer, a 44-year-old fan who has flown from Abu Dhabi to see the game. “Barcelona are the most popular team in the Gulf, and with the City ownership link to Abu Dhabi, there is massive excitement.”
Since that draw, the club say sales of City shirts at the official City Store in Abu Dhabi have rocketed, with Toure’s name being the most requested.
Like the rest of Britain, Manchester has been hit by severe weather conditions during the past week, but that has not deterred the small but growing band of City fanatics from making the trip.
“There are a group of nine of us in Manchester for the game and we have been twice to the Champions League this season already,” Almer said. “If City can beat Barcelona, it will be a very important step forward for the club and the team,” Almer said. “Hopefully we can do it, but we are playing the greatest team ever put together.”