“Where now for Manchester City?” has probably been the hottest Premier League question of the summer. Such has been their level of spending that the Champions League was regarded by some as the minimum target for last season, and Mark Hughes paid the price for this increase in expectation with his job. Whether the improved that much under new coach Roberto Mancini is open to question, and City were beaten to the fourth Champions League place by Tottenham Hotspur with a game to go of the season. City’s reaction has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, to go out and spend more money, though perhaps not as much as some had expected. This season, qualification for the Champions League is the minimum expectation for Manchester City, and that’s a phrase that not many people would have considered likely as recently as three or four years ago.
Given the quality of the competition, such an aim continues to be a very tough target to reach, but they have cause for optimism this summer in no small part because of the low levels of investment seen by their rivals. But have City spent too much money and too quickly? The answer to the question of whether they have spent “too much” is a loaded one, but the club’s owners will most likely consider it well spent if the club can get into the Champions League. We won’t know unless they have done it too quickly, in all likelihood, until it’s too late. What we do know is that one of the highest concentration of talented footballers on the planet at present is at The City of Manchester Stadium, and the fact of the matter is that is will take all of Roberto Mancini’s man-management skills to be able to do anything like such a vast collection of egos happy.
To some extent, we could even consider that Mancini is in something of an impossible position. City supporters, broadly speaking, seem pretty grounded over their expectations for the team (years of mediocrity – and occasionally worse – will have that effect), but there are only eleven places in the team and there will only be twenty-five places in their Premier League squad. It seems at the very least possible that there will be at least one “training ground bust-up”, “war of words”, or whatever over the course of the next nine months. He will have a better chance of keeping everybody onside if they have a strong start to the season, but if they don’t it is likely that the knives will quickly start to become drawn for Roberto Mancini. Beating Spurs into fourth place last season would have bought him some grace – that’s how narrow the margins of error are.
There have already been four new arrivals at the club already this summer – Aleksandar Kolarov, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Jerome Boateng – and it seems almost certain now that Mario Balotelli and James Milner will join them before the start of the season. These new players, and the return of Joe Hart from his season on loan at Birmingham City, will bloat their squad up to forty players, and fifteen will have to be trimmed off this squad. Roberto Mancini could be forgiven for not knowing what his best first team for the start of the season will be. City have failed to win five of their six pre-season friendly matches so far (they finally broke their duck against Valencia yesterday – we’re not counting a penalty shoot-out victory against Club America as a “win”, here) and, whilst it is true that we shouldn’t read too much into pre-season results, such a run of results can only have muddied the waters in the mind of Roberto Mancini.
We will certainly have a better idea of whether Manchester City can challenge for the Premier League title in a few weeks time. Three of their opening six matches are against Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Chelsea. If they can get a couple of wins from these matches, attention may turn from whether they can finish in the top four to whether they can go all the way and win the Premier League. Otherwise, City supporters would obviously be more than happy with Champions League qualification. As we have said previously, though, predicting the top four seems too close to call at this juncture. The cup competitions – including the Europa League – may be an alternative for the club’s supporters (it has, as Manchester United supporters are only too keen to remind them, been thirty-four years, after all), but we do not know whether the club’s owners would be satisfied with, say, a day out at Wembley.
There is no question about the quality of their squad. The new signings are strengthening an already talented assortment of players to the extent that players of the calibre of Roque Santa Cruz, Nedum Onuoha and Stephen Ireland seem likely to leave the club. But how can Mancini possibly hope to keep a big squad happy, especially when so many of the players are so used to being treated like princes? Will, say, Joe Hart be happy with keeping the bench warm for Shay Given, or will Mancini decide to rotate them, which may be even more problematic for the stability of the team. There are plenty worse problems that a manager could have, but it is worth consideration that the very fact of City’s success also affects their ability to get rid of players. The size of the wages that they have been paying means that they will also find it more difficult to rid themselves of players that are now surplus to requirements. Why should any of their players leave the club for someone else that will pay them a lower wage?
After four decades without a league championship title, Manchester City supporters seem unlikely to spend a great deal of time over the next few months pondering the rights and wrongs of the way that their club has been spending money over the last couple of years or so. A Manchester City championship win would, perhaps, not quite be as popular as it would have been a couple of years ago, but this is in no small part because it is so much more likely that it was a couple of years ago. If the squad doesn’t bind together quickly or if there are any internal ructions, a sustained bid to win the Premier League title will probably be beyond them. They can certainly expect another bid for a place in the Champions League, though, and, for supporters that can remember their fall from grace in the late 1990s and Raddy Antic in 1983, that should be enough to keep them happy. Whether anything less than the title proves to be enough for the owners, however, is a different question altogether.
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