x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Premier League preview: Manchester City face fight on many fronts

Lack of reinforcements the only real issues facing the defending Premier League champions, writes Richard Jolly

Sergio Aguero, bottom left, scorer of the title match-winning goal for Manchester City, celebrates with the trophy after the Queens Park Rangers game. Manager Roberto Mancini says keeping their hands on that trophy this season, as well as winning any other silverware, will be harder.
Sergio Aguero, bottom left, scorer of the title match-winning goal for Manchester City, celebrates with the trophy after the Queens Park Rangers game. Manager Roberto Mancini says keeping their hands on that trophy this season, as well as winning any other silverware, will be harder.

The footballing calendar allows little time to sit back and reflect upon achievements.

When a sporting Everest is climbed, the task, after a brief break, is to climb it again. And so, three months and six days after, in the fourth minute of stoppage time of the 38th game of the season, Sergio Aguero had one shot at glory and took it, Manchester City begin again.

Champions for the first time in 44 years, their job now is to make it twice in successive seasons. If the last campaign was about making history, this is about establishing a dominant normality.

If last season was about overhauling Manchester United, this is about emulating them. Since 1984, only two clubs have retained their title: Chelsea, during Jose Mourinho's reign, and, rather more often, United.

After two decades of an institutionalised inferiority complex where their neighbours were concerned, United loomed large last season. But they do so again, and not merely on the domestic front.

Since 1984 - again - only one English club has won the league title and the Champions League in the same season. There are no prizes for guessing who: United, in 1999 and 2008. Indeed, they are the only champions to reach the final of the major continental competition in that time.

While City's debut Champions League campaign was brief, it was also respectable. Collecting 10 points in a pool that also included the eventual runners-up, Bayern Munich, and a Napoli side who almost eliminated winners Chelsea was far from disastrous.

Now, however, an improvement is required. Out of the Champions League in December and the FA Cup in January last season, City have to compete on many fronts now. It is a test of Roberto Mancini's skills as a strategist and an examination of his players' durability. Sympathy will be in short supply if they complain of tiredness: the moneyed are rarely allowed to be fatigued.

Not that City have been extravagant in their expenditure this summer. After the other 19 Premier League clubs had made at least one signing, they were the lone exceptions until Jack Rodwell arrived from Everton. Even then, he is a squad player, rather than a superstar with a commensurate price tag.

So, as was also the plan, spending sprees are no longer a biennial event. A formidable squad has been compiled even if the major change is a systemic switch to three at the back, rather than an expensive overhaul.

To Mancini's frustration, weaknesses - in particular, a lack of high-quality alternatives to Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott in the centre of defence - have not been addressed and the marquee addition he hoped for, Robin van Persie, now plies his trade in Manchester, but in the red half. Other high-profile targets, like Daniel Agger, Daniele de Rossi and Javi Martinez, have eluded City.

Yet when a grumbling manager suggested his side were only third or fourth favourites for the title, they responded by overpowering Chelsea in the Community Shield. His gripes can meet with disbelief. Mancini has the strongest starting 11 in the country and formidable alternatives in most positions.

The striking quartet of Aguero, Mario Balotelli, Edin Dzeko and Carlos Tevez is rivalled only by the fearsome foursome, Van Persie included, at Sir Alex Ferguson's disposal. The City attack is a department that is both unchanged and, perversely, strengthened.

The six-month hiatus in Tevez's season after his refusal to appear against Bayern Munich meant City operated with three specialist attackers for the majority of last season. His rehabilitation leaves Balotelli as the most prominent enfant terrible, but the Italian's influential Euro 2012 marked a step forward, even if the resident enigma remains too unpredictable for many people's taste.

If a quest for consistency is the aim for Balotelli, the destroyer of Germany, three forwards have a collective responsibility to ease the burden on Aguero. The spine of the side - the Argentine, David Silva, Yaya Toure, Kompany and Joe Hart - assumed a huge importance and understudies could be unconvincing. When one or more were missing, as in January, results deteriorated.

Over the course of a campaign, however, they were outstanding. There are lesser issues to address - a total of five away defeats is a minor cause for concern and a total of one goal in them is an indication City went from forceful weapon to blunt tool on their travels - but their eventual tallies of 93 goals and 89 points marked an improvement of 33 and 18 respectively within 12 months.

After a huge stride forwards in England, the objective is not to take a step back. In Europe, they require a mirror of their domestic form last season, propelling them into uncharted territory. Mancini found the right balance between attack and defence in England, but it eluded him on the continent.

His elite players forged reputations for delivering domestically but arguably only Yaya Toure produced his best form in the Champions League. Tevez, in particular, has ghosts to exorcise after the drama in the dugout in Munich.

And yet, as Chelsea proved last season, there can be something illogical about Champions League success. Like Liverpool in 2005, they ended up as officially Europe's best team after a mediocre campaign in their own country.

Such can be the way of things in knockout football and that is why, while City ought to progress to the quarter-finals, further expectations could be unrealistic. In comparison, the Premier League marathon is a barometer of a club, of its resolve and resources, its firepower and its force, its constancy and its quality.

The reality is that nothing it offers can match the exhilarating way City ended their long drought on the afternoon of May 13.

No one, surely, can etch his way into club folklore quite like Aguero did with the match- and title-winning goal against Queens Park Rangers. Yet remaining on their lofty perch would be historic in its own way. It is their second Everest.




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