The extent to which Manuel Pellegrini can maintain his squad’s balance with this summer’s arrivals will go a long way to deciding if Manchester City can successfully defend their title
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 2nd (NB: this is not necessarily Jamie Jackson’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 1st
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 5-2
Manchester City now attempt to do what only Manchester United and Chelsea have achieved: retain the championship in the Premier League era.
To help in this quest Manuel Pellegrini has acquired Bacary Sagna, who can play every position in defence, on a free transfer, paid £12m for Porto’s Fernando to strengthen central midfield, and brought in Willy Caballero from Málaga for £6m to offer serious competition for Joe Hart.
City are pleased with this business considering the £49m net spend limitation imposed on them by Uefa due to their Financial Fair Play irregularities. But the one player Pellegrini is to splurge £32m on – and the manager really needs – has led him a merry dance.
Porto’s Eliaquim Mangala could have signed in January and might, again, have joined at the end of last season. While City remain quietly confident he will arrive – the word is that the deal might have been completed earlier but there has been no need to rush it through – as the third most expensive signing in the club’s history, how Mangala fares will be intriguing.
The 23-year-old is being bought to play alongside Vincent Kompany in central defence. Martín Demichelis was an important factor during City’s title-winning run-in but his pace is suspect and at 33 – and after an arduous campaign playing in Argentina’s run to the World Cup final – he is past his best.
The concern with Mangala is how he might settle in the Premier League. The Frenchman’s temperament would be tested, and he did not kick a ball in anger at the World Cup, and so is not yet an established international. Also, Mangala would hardly ride into City on a wave of enthusiasm, having previously publicly expressed a preference for Chelsea, as well as continually prevaricating over the transfer.
The curious case of Yaya Touré and his missing birthday cake appears to have been solved, though maybe only for the time being. The rumblings of discontent from the Ivorian feel like they could flare up again at any moment.
While Frank Lampard has been signed on a loan deal for half of the season, he is 36 and is no straight replacement for the dynamic Touré. The Englishman is helping to fill City’s home-grown player quota of five in the reduced Champions League squad of 21, another of the FFP punishments, which are being characterised as hardly ideal but no hindrance by the club as they should last for only the coming campaign.
Regarding Lampard, Pellegrini says: “He knows we have a very good team, we have a lot of players in his position. He is one player more. We have a lot of games particularly with the Champions League, so he’s very important for our team.”
Beyond these issues, though, City should enter the new campaign in serene and highly confident mood. Pellegrini added a second championship in three years to the Capital One Cup success to repeat the double achieved by José Mourinho in his first season as Chelsea manager, in 2004-05.
The Chilean also took City into the Champions League knockout stage for the first time meaning his players’ experience of the competition has broadened. Yet with this comes greater expectation and Pellegrini will soon be fielding questions about whether not winning the European Cup next term will constitute a failure.
A squad featuring the star turns of Touré, Sergio Agüero, David Silva, Kompany, Fernandinho, Pablo Zabaleta, Hart and Samir Nasri, and who are backed up by Caballero, Edin Dzeko, Álvaro Negredo, Stevan Jovetic, Fernando, Sagna, James Milner, Jesús Navas, Aleksandar Kolarov, Gaël Clichy, and Demichelis, should be reaching the semi-finals, at least.
Milner, whose future remains in doubt as he wants greater first XI opportunities, believes the push to elevate the club further is on. “I don’t like making predictions but we’ve got a strong team, we’ve improved our squad, it’s stronger,” he says. “The new guys are settling in and once they do, we’ll be better for it. The hunger is there. We want to go again because we’ve had the taste of winning trophies. At one point last season we were still in all four trophies and pushing for each one. So we want to be in that situation again and pushing for all of them.
“City is a great club to be with and I just want to contribute as much as I can. I played in important games at the end of last season and it was pleasing to help the team win trophies. That’s what it’s all about – I want as many minutes as I can. Competition is tough but when you get out there you have to go and help the team. We definitely have that at City, you test yourself every single day in training. You want to improve, you want to win trophies and think: ‘Did I become the best player that I can?’
“If you can’t improve playing with these guys in the dressing room you are going to struggle anyway.”
While City failed to reach the final of the International Champions Cup where they would have faced Manchester United last Monday, Milner believes the team is primed for the upcoming campaign. “Pre-season isn’t really a time any player likes,” he says. “There’s not much of a break after a World Cup. You need a rest but on the other hand it doesn’t take you too much time to get back in the swing of things.
“It’s all behind us now and we are focusing on the new season. We know how hard it’s going to be and we know how strong the other teams are and they’ve strengthened again but it’s up to us to go again and try to retain the title.
“It’ll be tight – it was very competitive last year and I’m sure it will be close again. It’s down to us to go out there and show we are the [ones to] beat, I suppose.”
City have a great chance of emulating United and Chelsea to win a consecutive Premier League title. If Pellegrini’s band can finish above the London side, they should do so.