Noisy neighbours look to crash party
Having completed stage one of the Manchester City master plan last season - ensuring that they broke their silverware drought by winning the FA Cup and clinching automatic qualification to the Champions League - City are a side on the up.
With the Abu Dhabi United Group's deep pockets to delve into, the blue half of Manchester is finally in a position to pin their hopes on a realistic title challenge as opposed to the relegation concerns that have troubled them for so long.
But the optimism that has arrived at Eastlands has been tinged with sadness at the prospect of losing captain, talisman and idol, Carlos Tevez this summer. The Argentine's love affair with the game seems over and, with more pressing family concerns on his plate, the start of the season could see him sent on loan, sold to a club which stumps up £45 million, or returning to Manchester to wait out another chance to move to Brazil in January.
The importance of Tevez is not evident simply from his 20 Premier League goals last season, but also in his work ethic and ability to lead the side's defensive line from the front. Few strikers in world football can boast the same attributes, but City have worked hard to bring a man to replace him with the minimum of upheaval.
The arrival of Argentine Sergio Aguero in a £38 million deal from Atletico Madrid is a welcome boost to the City forward line, which was starting to look decidedly thin with the exits of Jo and Felipe Caicedo and little chance of loan trio Craig Bellamy, Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz returning to stake their claims for a first-team place. With the inconsistent Edin Dzeko keen to prove himself in his first full season in England, Aguero will not have to do a lot right to place himself at the top of the pecking order - assuming of course that Tevez is not around - and hopes are high for the son-in-law of the great Diego Maradona.
But Roberto Mancini's striking equation has another addition: Mario Balotelli. The unpredictable Italian failed to cover himself in glory again in pre-season after being hauled off after half an hour following a piece of showboating in the friendly against LA Galaxy and has a fiery relationship with his boss. Love him, or loathe him, Balotelli is a precocious talent and, at his best, is certainly a player to be feared. Whether or not Mancini is able to tame (or at least channel) the wild streak in him this season remains to be seen, but there will be more controversy expected in the coming year.
While City scored 18 goals less than champions United, they had the joint-best defensive record alongside Chelsea in 2010-11. With Kolo Toure's suspension, for taking one of his wife's diet pills, ending in September and Joleon Lescott showing more consistency as well as the versatility that allows him to fill in at left-back, the side are well set up and have even more depth than they did, having added young centre-back Stefan Savic and experienced Arsenal full-back Gael Clichy.
The £12 million exit of Jerome Boateng causes little upheaval in the City line due to his injury problems last season and, once again, Mancini will turn to the rock that is Vincent Kompany to provide the stability that he needs. Making the Belgian captain this season is just reward for his ability to lead from the back and, ironically, the one player that City have signed on the cheap appears to be one of the best.
Another reason for their resolute defensive performances came in the shape of goalkeeper Joe Hart. Displacing Shay Given, Hart's elevation to first-choice stopper for both club and country occurred quickly and, as a result, Given has now sought a new challenge at Aston Villa. With Stuart Taylor, David Gonzalez and Gunnar Nielsen acting as backups, there is depth, but City fans may worry if something happens to the England No.1.
The one main area that Mancini has not seen need to strengthen is the centre of midfield. With a trio of powerful, combative central players in Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong, the core of the side is strong. Patrick Vieira has retired - moving to a position with the City backroom staff - but with two solid defensive midfielders shielding the defence and Toure given an unusually advanced role last season, power and stamina is in no short supply. However, as with their main title rivals, creativity is a little lacking.
David Silva bore the burden of leading City's attack in 2010-11 and was often forced to drift inside to direct the play. The Spaniard improved throughout the season and his touch and vision ensured that City carried some threat in the final third, but without him they struggled. This is certainly an important season for the midfielder as City could use more than the four goals in 30 starts he managed last season; if he adds a finishing touch to his repertoire, then there is every chance he could end the campaign as one of the best in the league.
Winger Adam Johnson is an able deputy when given a chance, and Vladimir Weiss and Shaun Wright-Phillips will also be keen to press their claims to stay at the club if they don't choose to try their luck elsewhere on loan. But there is still something of a creative hole.
After the successes of the last campaign, the City board's expectations for the season are high. The first-half of the Community Shield gave them hope, the second took it away, but failure to mount a serious title challenge will not be tolerated - although when a club has been built on the millions of a wealthy owner there is always going to be pressure. Mancini is under no illusions as to what is expected of him and, as City prepare for their first adventure into the Champions League, he would be well advised to enjoy the good times while they last.
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