Man City join Europe's top table
Manchester City's ticket to a seat at Europe's top table has not come cheap at more than £350m - but entry into the Champions League may provide the missing link in their plan for global domination.
City rarely provide pleasure without pain for their followers and the 1-0 win against Tottenham that sealed their place in the Premier League's top four only arrived after spells of torture for their fans and Roberto Mancini.
The coach was elated at the final whistle, having, in all likelihood, secured his job for next season after spending £127m last summer and keeping a promise made in adversity at Liverpool on 11 April that he would deliver Champions League football and a place in the FA Cup final.
And Mancini and City's landmark moment may prove to be the start of a shift in European football's landscape as they exert their financial authority on its biggest club tournament.
When City's Abu Dhabi hierarchy embarked on the scorched earth transfer policy to transform Eastlands, they could offer their intended targets anything that their hearts desired - except Champions League football.
The great lure for the very best was not within their grasp, although it did not stop City attracting players of such proven Champions League pedigree as Yaya Toure from Barcelona and World Cup winner David Silva from Valencia.
Now the gap in City's CV has been filled and the opportunity to join Europe's elite group means this fiercely ambitious club is unlikely to arrive quietly through the back door. The win against Spurs ensures all the boxes are ticked when it comes to presenting their case to world-class players.
Indeed, Harry Redknapp, who sampled the intoxicating taste of the Champions League as Spurs reached the last eight and conquered Inter and AC Milan along the way, has already revealed: "They tell me they've got one or two players signed already who'll blow your brains out."
And they may be needed. Tottenham's experiences this season serve as a warning that exertions in Europe can take a heavy toll at home if a squad is below strength.
City looked jaded themselves as, has so often been the case under Mancini, they crossed the line with little to spare, surviving a 20-minute spell in the second half rooted to the edge of their own penalty area.
Mancini punches the air during City's win over Spurs. Photo: Reuters
There was irony in the manner of victory. It was the second season in succession that Peter Crouch has sealed qualification for a team at Eastlands. Last season, his strike in the right net ensured Spurs made the Champions League at City's expense. His own goal at the same end on Tuesday ensured the reverse was true this time around.
Even the return of Carlos Tevez, keen to press his claims for a place in Saturday's FA Cup final against Stoke City at Wembley after a month on the sidelines with hamstring trouble, was not without its stresses. Mancini, understandably, was not keen to use such a defining fixture as a public fitness test for the Argentine. But this did not sit well with the player, who appeared to vent his frustrations in his coach's direction during one of several lengthy warm-ups.
Tevez eventually made a lively 12-minute cameo against Spurs, including stoppage time, but the impression his relationship with Mancini is fragile remains. Whether Tevez will figure significantly at Wembley, or even be at City to play in next season's Champions League, is still a matter for debate, too.
What is beyond dispute is that City's arrival in the Champions League completes phase one of the mission undertaken by the men from Abu Dhabi when they took control of Eastlands from Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2008.
City have qualified for Europe's major club tournament for the first time since 1968 and will make their bow in the Champions League, testimony to the speed of their development in the last three seasons.
The next stage is tangible success and silverware - and City have the chance to secure that on Saturday, although Stoke have the sort of weaponry to inflict serious damage.
Money has been no object, either for Mancini or predecessor Mark Hughes, in the search for the formula that would thrust City forward on to the world stage. There may be plans for a more cautious approach given Uefa's Financial Fair Play regulations are looming on the horizon but the temptation to respond to their latest elevation in status with another show of strength in the transfer market will be great.
Such a policy has its risks. For every Toure, Silva and Adam Johnson, there has been a Robinho, Roque Santa Cruz and Wayne Bridge, while the £52m spent on Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko has yet to yield a meaningful return.
Nigel de Jong has proved a great success, while a major priority this summer is likely to be securing moves away from Eastlands for the trio out on loan - Bridge, Emmanuel Adebayor and Craig Bellamy - to free up space and finance for new faces.
City can train their sights higher than ever before - and that is likely to mean more spectacular deeds as opposed to careful consolidation.
Mancini has reportedly attracted interest in his services from Juventus but it is hard to see what "La Vecchia Signora" could offer him that City could not, other than a return to his native Italy.
He has the foundations of an outstanding squad but this is still very much a work in progress. City are not yet pleasing enough on the eye for a team that has had so much money lavished on it and plenty inside Eastlands on Tuesday were expressing their frustrations with Mancini's approach during a tense second half.
There were no complaints at the end, however, simply a heady cocktail of elation and relief as City took another step on the road mapped out in Abu Dhabi.
"I think it's very important for my job," said Mancini. "But, first of all, I'm happy for the supporters and the people who work at this club. This is for them because, after many years, Manchester City can play in the Champions League.
"When I arrived here, I said that City could become one of the top teams in Europe in two or three years. City have everything to do this but we've got it because the players want to play in the Champions League and they deserve to play in the Champions League.
"It's a relief. I'm happy because it was our first target and I have to thank the players. They did a fantastic job. We deserve it because we have been in the top four all season."
And such is the scale of ambition at Eastlands that City are unlikely to be content with mere qualification - the newcomers to the biggest stage in European football will use the summer to shape their impact on the Champions League.