A spell broken, or a mere blip? This may be the question that Manchester City supporters are asking themselves as they prepare themselves for a season which will see their club fall under the spotlight of the media to a hitherto unprecedented extent. They may have been challenging for a place in the Champions League and to land a major trophy for the first time in three and a half decades, but it felt last season as if manager Roberto Mancini was walking a perpetual tightrope, with the entire world watching them from below and a considerable number of them hoping that he would stumble and fall. They didn’t. They edged Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal out to snatch third place in the Premier League, and one more point would have seen them finish the season as runners-up to Manchester United. Then, with the club’s stated aim for the season successfully sewn up, they edged Stoke City out in the FA Cup final to win their first major trophy since the 1976 League Cup.
All, then, should be right in the world of Manchester City, but this summer has not been a comfortable one for the club. Its stadium naming rights deal for the City of Manchester Stadium is likely to come under the scrutiny of UEFA’s mandarins, whilst the furore that followed Mario Ballotelli’s back-heel and the subsequent censure of his manager proved two things: the football has reached a point at which it takes it self too damn seriously, and that there is an element within the media that will not be fully satisfied with Manchester City until the club has become a fully-fledged soap opera, with Mario Ballotelli cast in the role of Bet Lynch. Roberto Mancini’s most important job may be to insulate his squad from the white noise that will hang over the club over the next ten months or so, but questions were asked of Mancini’s reserved tactical attitude last season, and the prognosis for Mancini’s future at the club will continue be dependent upon the grace of those that run the club, and the question of whether they demand further silverware and the extent to which they demand that this silverware be won with a flash of élan.
Hanging in the background of the future on-pitch prosperity of Manchester City Football Club is the matter of how it chooses to deal with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations. There are signs that the club is looking to either cut or re-jig its wage budget. Shay Given has been offloaded to Aston Villa, while the futures of Craig Bellamy, Emmanuel Adebayor and Wayne Bridge remain up in the air, with it looking unlikely that any of those players will be involved in Mancini’s plans for next season, although whether they will be loaned out again, released or sold remains uncertain at the moment. With wages running to one hundred and six per cent of annual turn-over, it is perhaps unsurprising that the club should have signed a sponsorship deal including, amongst other things, a naming rights deal for The City of Manchester Stadium with Etihad Airways, worth £400 million over the next ten years. Many have scoffed at the size of this deal, claiming that the club is merely using its Abu Dhabi contacts to side-step the FPP regulations and UEFA are to investigate the size of this deal, but the truth is a little more complicated than this. For one thing, the deal agreed covers shirt sponsorship and and academy to be built on land adjacent to the COMS. It is also worth pointing out that English clubs have traditionally lagged behind their continental rivals in maximising commercial revenues, and that this may have to be taken into account by UEFA when they are looking into what represents “value” in terms of this particular deal.
It had looked as if the club might even have a quiet summer in the transfer market, until the £35m acquisition of Sergio Agüero from Atlético Madrid last week. There is little doubting the quality of Agüero as a player, and Mancini has stated – in the way that managers always seem to do – that he is still a couple of players short of the team that he wants. The steady drip, drip, drip, of players of this calibre towards Manchester City, though, seems to offer further ammunition to the notion that Manchester City are no longer in a position to consider themselves a work in progress. Another of the balancing acts that Mancini will have to keep airborne is that between the Champions League and the Premier League. Harry Redknapp couldn’t quite manage it last season with Tottenham Hotspur, but the resources available to Roberto Mancini are something that Redknapp can only fantasise over and it seems likely that the club will be expected to repeat its top four finish – possibly with a challenge for the Premier League itself – at the same time as launching a serious bid for the Champions League. The vast amounts of money invested in the club carry with them a burden of expectation that seems close to intolerable.
Such expectations are one thing. Dislodging the current champions of England and Europe, however, is another altogether. Barcelona may or may not prove to be dislodgable in the Champions League for several years to come, but cup football can always provide a surprise or two. Winning this competition, however, may prove to be beyond the club. The Premier League, though, twinkles on the horizon and, should Mancini be able to get his tactics right and manage the egos in his squad, there is little reason why City shouldn’t be able to at least challenge for the trophy. A handful of miles away from the City of Manchester Stadium, though, sits a red, white and black behemoth that has, to an almost unhealthy degree, come to form part of the self-identity of Manchester City Football Club. Should the battle for the Premier League trophy end up being an internecine battle between the two Manchester clubs, Mancini will have to cope with the noises coming from Old Trafford as well as whatever may or may not be happening within his own club. How he reacts to this sort of pressure may come to define the club’s season.
The reason for the sense of expectation, however, is obvious. To read the list of the current Manchester City squad is akin to visiting a Madame Tussauds of modern football. From goalkeeper Joe Hart through to a roster of forward players that now contains Carlos Tevez (for now, at least), David Silva, Edin Džeko and Mario Ballotelli as well as Sergio Agüero, the brilliance of the players at Mancini’s disposal is almost breath-taking. Last season saw them take major steps towards becoming a team and, if they can reach the fullest of their potential over the coming months, they are surely capable of coming close to winning every competition that they enter this season. Such jigsaw puzzles, are not complete because all of the pieces are present and correct and, to an extent, the amount of money spent at Manchester City over the last two or three years or so means that Roberto Mancini’s job is tougher than many give him credit for. Expecation levels around the club are now stratospherically high, and failure is, to put it simply, not an option. Perhaps the more significant question about Manchester City next season is that of what the definition of “failure” would mean, in the context of this particular club.
If last season’s achievements were framed by the club through the importance of qualifying for the Champions League, it is likely that, for many supporters, last season will be remembered for the wins at Wembley against Manchester United and Stoke City. This season, the focus will probably change to how Roberto Mancini can capture the Premier League and/or the Champions League. Yet the base level of achievement remains the same. It seems difficult to believe that repeating the achievement isn’t fundamental to whatever plan the club has to fit in with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, so this remains the core aim, and with Liverpool revitalised and Tottenham Hotspur not distracted by the Champions League this season, competition for those four precious Champions League places will remain tight. If Roberto Mancini can hold his team’s nerve, then a repeat of last season certainly seems likely, and the question then becomes one of how much further they can develop this season. The Champions League may well be beyond them, but the Premier League championship might not be if the dazzling talent assembled at The City of Manchester Stadium can be assembled to its potential. Roberto Mancini will not need telling, though, what an enormous job this would be. We may have to wait and see whether the Abu Dhabi United group are aware of this, though.
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