In the EPL you can typically sort teams into two piles—your relegation battlers and your competitors for Europe. And then there’s a teeny tiny side pile. Call this one Win it all. . . or else. Here you’ll find Chelsea and, newly, 2013-14 league winners Manchester City. In other words: Manager Manuel Pellegrini ought not kid himself; without Crystal Palace’s (and, before that, Stevie Gerrard’s) intervention late last season, he was out of a job. In order to keep said job it’s likely that The Engineer will have to A) repeat in England B) win the Champions League or C.) some combination of a top-four finish and a very deep march in Europe.
So, what are the obstacles facing a team that has retained its core throughout a run of three straight top-two finishes? Pundits will start by picking apart this defense (more on that later), but City’s taking a Howard Jones approach here. Things can only get better. In other words: No chance captain Vincent Kompany misses 10 games again; no chance his preferred center back-mate, Matija Nastasic, suffers the same season-long knee condition (he looked fit in the preseason); no chance Martin Demichelis returns to his turnstile form. . . Well, one can hope.
As insurance, City concentrated its meager offseason spending in the back, first inking Arsenal’s Bacary Sagna for free to rotate with criminally underrated right back Pablo Zabaleta, and then adding a pair of Porto specialists, defensive midfielder Fernando and center back Eliaquim Mangala. The latter will compete with Nastasic to supplant Demichelis, who had a nice little World Cup—but, let’s not forget, also got beat on the most important goal of the past four years.
With improvement in back, City needs only to keep up with its crazy, breakneck pace of the past three seasons. Eighty-seven goals? Easy peasy. As long as midfielder Samir Nasri continues to mature, as long as striker Stevan Jovetic delivers on the promise he showed in July as a rotation man, and as long as management remembers to wish a Happy Birthday to a certain Ivorian midfielder.
KEY ARRIVALS: GK Willy Caballero (from Malaga), MF Fernando (from Porto), MF Frank Lampard (on loan from NYCFC), D Eliaquim Mangala (Porto), D Bacary Sagna (from Arsenal)
KEY DEPARTURES: MF Gareth Barry (to Everton), MF Jack Rodwell (to Sunderland), D Joleon Lescott (to West Brom)
PLAYER TO WATCH: For all of its outrageous financial outlays of years past, this team will once again live and die by the right leg of its most fragile Smurf, Sergio Aguero. The owner for a brief period last year of the record for the most EPL goals-per-minute, the delicate striker has dictated City’s fate thusly:
2011-12: 31 starts, 23 goals; City wins the league
2012-13: 22 starts, 12 goals; City watches Man U run away with it
2013-14: 20 starts, 17 goals; heavy favorites, but City barely repeats
That impact didn’t end last May. A popular Golden Boot pick pre-World Cup, Aguero missed two games in Brazil and struggled through the rest. Argentina, in turn, adopted a defensive approach. Imagine if Aguero had been in top form.
KEY STAT: City was terrible in defense last year, right? Its back line abysmal, almost costing the club the league, an embarrassment to departed defensive-minded manager Roberto Mancini? Sure, but the club allowed just 37 goals, second behind Chelsea, which scored 29 fewer. EPL champions have allowed, on average, 29 goals per season over the past 10 years. Man U won it two years ago despite ceding 43. City’s D was not the sieve that some critics suggest.
STADIUM: Etihad Stadium (Built in 1999; Capacity 47,405)
Designed to host the 2002 Commonwealth Games, the building required a major redesign to remove the track and make the venue soccer friendly. Unlike most EPL stadiums with cantilever or truss roofs, Etihad has a sweeping roof separate from the concrete bowl. An extensive cabling system helps support the 12 masts of the signature roof.