City challenging Chelsea identity
Propelled to the top of the rich list in one day, Manchester City could be forgiven for wondering who they really are anymore. Once the team of Summerbee, Bell and Lee, now they are the club of millions, billions and trillions.
City has often seemed an addiction to their long-suffering fans; now their diagnosed three-step plan to recovery is to finish in the top four, win the Premier League and conquer Europe. To aid them, the owner-elect Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan is apparently willing to match the British record fee of £32.5million paid for Robinho 18 times.
The £540 million team may be a tad unbalanced to judge by the wish-list compiled by the Arab owners; Cesc Fabregas is the only orthodox central midfielder and there were no defenders or goalkeepers in a select band of strikers, wingers and fantasistas. So world domination will presumably be accomplished while Michael Ball and Javier Garrido continue to compete for the left-back spot.
The billionaires' brand of fantasy football rarely involves the prosaic - that is where the manager's input is essential - but nor does it factor in the idea that not everyone, and not everything, can be bought. Even the frenetic trading on transfer deadline day should have provided an indication of that. Dimitar Berbatov did not prefer Manchester United for financial reasons. Ruud van Nistelrooy was uninterested in City's approach. Fabregas has since scoffed at speculation he would swap Arsenal's old money for the nouveau riche.
Greed governs in football, but there are still a few dissenters. In any case, Fabregas and Berbatov will become remarkably wealthy without needing to sign for City. Chelsea, in their time as the world's richest club, discovered this. Fine players were recruited in abundance, but how many belonged to the very top rank? Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Frank Lampard graduated to that bracket while at Stamford Bridge. Petr Cech and Ricardo Carvalho belong there, as did Claude Makelele, but such defensively-orientated footballers rarely excite the uber-rich tycoons or increase the global fanbase. Deco was perceived as a waning force before he was bought, and Andriy Shevchenko was proved to be in decline after his arrival. That only leaves Michael Ballack.
In contrast, Lionel Messi and Kaka have eluded them, as did Thierry Henry at the peak of his powers along with Real Madrid's version of a supergroup, the galacticos. But besides a hefty supply of readies, the lure of Chelsea, such as it was, was still reliant on the pulling power of two managers, and Avram Grant was not one of them. Jose Mourinho rebranded the club in his own image, entertaining and outspoken off the pitch and ruthless winners on it.
Wealth brings unpopularity and Mourinho revelled in it. City, beloved losers, will find themselves subject to a greater change of identity than members of the Witness Protection Program. It is true that they have been heavy spenders before, but the consequences contributed to their image as football's answer to Frank Spencer. It is difficult to remain a source of unintentional amusement when the club is floating on oil.
Chelsea showed it is possible to win trophies, but class eluded them. If they thought that the historic giants of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal were looking down their noses at them, they were probably right. Mourinho, the cocky upstart, cared not.
So Mark Hughes' task goes beyond football, beyond even placating owners whose football knowledge may be questionable. The common perception of City rests in his hands. Claudio Ranieri achieved the impossible by becoming the biggest-spending manager in the country and the most popular with neutrals; Mourinho, still more than Abramovich, became the public face of Chelsea.
Hughes may not have comparable charisma, but he does offer credibility. In places where there is a wilful ignorance of football outside the same four teams, his credentials have been questioned. That ignores the fact his playing career was vastly superior to those of Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Rafa Benitez and Luiz Felipe Scolari and a managerial record notable for identifying, motivating and developing players. Blackburn were definitely his team. His club would be preferable to one distinguished by a willingness to indiscriminately throw large sums of money at whoever the most famous footballers in the world happen to be.
But if City are undergoing an identity crisis, so are Chelsea. Their reputation was based upon remuneration. Gazumped them for Robinho, they can no longer rely on outspending everyone else. It was significant that Deco was lured to Stamford Bridge by Scolari. The manager has to form part of the appeal, along with a formidable playing staff. Chelsea have Champions League football, something City are yet to attain.
Chelsea's advantage is gone, but their quest for both the silverware and the supporters that would cement status among the elite continues. It may be entirely coincidental, but both they and City seem to have turned to the country who, in the international game, combine dominance with worldwide appeal. Deco's vision and Robinho's trickery were both highlights of the clash of the cash at the City of Manchester Stadium on Saturday.
With the most high-profile Brazilian manager on the planet recruiting his compatriots, and the long-term aim of adding Kaka to their squad, Chelsea are compiling their version of the Selecao. With a flagship signing from Sao Paolo and a possible forward line of Robinho, Jo and Elano, so are their still more affluent rivals. As Manchester City and Chelsea search for a new identity, the battle to be the most Brazilian team in England has begun.