A wealth of options could make or break City
Twelve months ago, only those in the know would have predicted that Manchester City would be competing with Real Madrid at the top of the transfer spending table. Back in August 2008, should Martin O'Neill have suggested that City had the wherewithal to win the title then the men in white coats would have been making a bee-line for Villa Park.
But, as The Smiths once had it, "Money Changes Everything" and the last days of Dr Thaksin Shinawatra are forgotten as Abu Dhabi's "project" is now in full swing. They may have failed to lure Kaka and John Terry to Eastlands but they have spent plenty of money besides and to a club like O'Neill's Villa they are a significant cloud on the horizon, especially as many of the players they have signed have come from teams previously in a similar echelon. And the "big four" may now be looking nervously over their shoulders.
As manager Mark Hughes has found out, being the nouveau riche in football meets with its own challenges. Movements in the transfer market have been met with much scorn. Any player going to City has been accused of avarice with Gareth Barry, a £12m purchase in early close-season from Aston Villa, causing Rafael Benitez much consternation in his decision to opt for City. Villa, meanwhile, were happy to get the transfer fee paid straight out from City rather than a staggered series of payments from Liverpool.
Another club happy to do business with City have been Arsenal, who banked £41m for Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure. Both players were sold after what could hardly be described as vintage seasons for the Gunners but in selling them to City, Arsene Wenger may yet have strengthened the team that could prove to be his team's closest rival for fourth place and Champions League qualification.
Other clubs have been less happy about interest in their players. David Moyes has fought a long fight to keep Joleon Lescott as did Blackburn before finally extricating £18m for Roque Santa Cruz. Chelsea, meanwhile, publicly treated the multi-headline-making interest in John Terry with something approaching disdain. Though the Londoners may privately have welcomed the large amount of money they would have received for their captain, their public utterances were of blank denial. After a considerable wait which had many thinking Terry was seriously considering a rumoured wage offer of £250,000-a-week, the England captain eventually eschewed the chance to link up once more with Wayne Bridge and Shaun Wright-Phillips.
In his place Hughes is hoping to lure Lescott, who is not quite the defensive organiser City clearly wanted Terry to be. While Vincent Kompany, Nedum Onuoha and Micah Richards are all players who add versatility to the backline, with Richard Dunne looking likely to be cashed in, the defence still lacks the commanding presence that Hughes clearly wants. Bayern Munich's Lucio was a supposed target before joining Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan and the Brazilian's experience would have been useful.
Such moves for the likes of Terry and Lucio, as indeed with Kaka's move to Real Madrid for £44m less than City were prepared for pay for him, have foundered on the lack of European football that City can offer. The club's stated aim is to break the closed shop that has been Champions League qualification but in the meantime Manchester's Blues have been unable to even offer the Europa League to potential players.
That said, for big money, Hughes now has a phalanx of strikers with Carlos Tevez and Adebayor favourites to start, should Robinho be deployed on a left flank until Martin Petrov is back to fitness to also patrol. The lengthy pursuit of Roque Santa Cruz proved successful but, along with Craig Bellamy, he is likely to be benched as the season begins. Hughes finds himself in a position that many managers may envy, a wealth of choice, yet such heavy cash outlay means he will need to find the right combinations quickly.
His midfield group is similarly blessed in numbers though the departure of Elano would seem to have removed a ball-playing option. That said, such was the quality of Stephen Ireland's 2008-09 season that few City followers would lament the loss of Elano, least of all Hughes for whom bridges had been burned by the Brazilian some time ago. Nigel De Jong proved a decent midfield anchorman last season and would be expected to operate in tandem with Barry in that role. Should Ireland play ahead of them and Shaun Wright-Phillips play right wing then that could leave Hughes with only a single striker to field, something which could mean Carlos Tevez again becoming miffed by non-selection.
One regret for City fans has been, for differing reasons, the loss of youth products Daniel Sturridge and Ched Evans. It also looks like Richards, Onouha and former golden boy Michael Johnson face quite a fight to be first-team regulars. Hughes is finding that having so many options brings its own problems.
The manager himself has faced many a jibe about his club's ability to outspend the rest of England's clubs yet has always played the straight bat. He has been irked by the perceived "mind games" of Ferguson and O'Neill while remaining publicly confident in his squad's ability to mount a more sustained challenge than last season. Not being in Europe may well have bought Hughes time in that a Europa League place may have been an attraction for a big-name boss to come in and replace him but should City's league campaign falter then he is likely to be wracked by pressure.
City's switch from being a much-mocked home for farce and ill-starred giddyness to one of genuine expectation is one of the most striking changes in the English game. After the hysteria surrounding their landing of Robinho and the "Kaka Katastrophe" of January there are signs that the club are showing a more professional and less grating edge to their approach. Gushing "executive chairman" Garry Cook has been noticeably less viewed in public while Hughes has been honest in his appraisal of the various transfer deals he has been embroiled in.
The Welshman and his Arabian paymasters have been forced to pay top dollar to build up their squad yet there is little doubt that they have the on-field depth to edge out the likes of Everton, Villa and Tottenham. A final assault on last season's top four and silverware may have to wait but should the cash keep flowing in, the signs are that City are heading in that general direction.