December 30, 2014

During last season, Manchester City got their man for the touchline. Over the summer, they have again gotten their men through the transfer market, exorbitant price tags be damned.

All eyes will be on Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday when Manchester City once more begin a season of sky-high expectations against a Sunderland side in a state of flux.

One of the worst-kept secrets in all of European football, Guardiola was named Manuel Pellegrini's successor Feb. 1 and signed a three-year contract worth a reported £45 million - the highest average manager's salary in the Premier League. That ended an awkward dance in which Pellegrini - who claimed he knew of the deal a month prior - was left to twist in the wind on a weekly basis and eventually guided the Citizens to a fourth-place finish and a Champions League playoff spot.

City will have a quick turnaround after this match to start that two-legged series, which opens Tuesday at Steaua Bucharest in Romania. The winner will advance into group play proper.

Guardiola had previously announced last Christmas he was leaving Bayern Munich, wrapping up a three-season spell in Bavaria rich in domestic glory with three Bundesliga titles but lacking a Champions League trophy. In fact, Bayern was eliminated in the semifinals all three years of his tenure - a round City reached for the first time in club history during Pellegrini's final season in charge.

The former Barcelona taskmaster has been reunited with his boardroom partners from the Catalan club - director of football Txiki Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano - and the trio spent lavishly this summer reshaping City to fit Guardiola's vision to win the Champions League trophy team owner Sheikh Mansour is so desperate to lift as well as another domestic title.

"That's why I'm here. To prove myself," Guardiola said at his introductory news conference last month. "I was in Barcelona where I had absolutely everything, the best player ever and one team where most of the players grew up from the academy so I knew them. Bayern Munich, a club who have a lot of experience as well for many, many things.

"Here is another test for my career. It would have been comfortable to stay where I was, I feel that it is the right moment to come here and prove myself. If I'm able to convince these players the way we want, and show a level at the end then we'll see. If it's not going well, we're ready to prepare what's going to happen."

Accordingly, it was another busy offseason on the blue side of Manchester, where central defender John Stones was the latest acquisition Wednesday for a reported transfer fee of £47.5 million to Everton. The 22-year-old, who suffered a dip in form last season and was left on England's bench during the European Championship this summer, is expected to form a partnership with captain Vincent Kompany when the Belgium international fully recovers from his calf woes.

"It all seems so surreal," admitted Stones, who was desperately wanted by Jose Mourinho before he was sacked at Chelsea last season. "It was a lot of things, I spoke to a lot of the boys and they wanted me to come in. (Pep) was a big part of that. I want to help the team win trophies."

Stones is one of six new signings for City, who laid out a combined £72 million in transfer fees for midfielders Leroy Sane (Schalke), Ilkay Gundogan (Borussia Dortmund) and striker Nolito (Celta Vigo). With their arrivals, defender Martin Demichelis has already left, while City are reportedly listening to offers for Samir Nasri, Wilfried Bony and Eliaquim Mangala among others.

It will be interesting to see how the new faces mesh with the holdovers. There is still plenty of firepower up front, paced by forward Sergio Aguero and wing Kevin De Bryune. Both missed stretches of time with injuries, but Aguero still nearly won the Golden Boot after totaling 24 goals in just 30 league matches. De Bruyne had seven goals and nine assists in 22 league matches but also contributed three goals in Champions League play.

It is also a reunion of sorts for Guardiola and midfielder Yaya Toure, who had six goals in an uneven 2015-16 campaign. The 33-year-old played two seasons under Guardiola at Barcelona before joining City in 2010.

After another season of flirting with relegation before Sam Allardyce pulled them through the fire, Sunderland finally appeared on an upward trajectory. But that has all been thrown into chaos with Allardyce leaving to take the England national team job late last month.

In his place comes David Moyes, looking to rebound after a disastrous stint of less than one season at Manchester United as Sir Alex Ferguson's successor and a one-year run at Real Sociedad that ended with him being sacked last November following a poor start.

The former Everton boss fully understands the urgency at stake for both the Wearside club and his legacy, telling the team's official website, "I can see this giving me a chance to progress and make the team better and hopefully - I'm going to say it again - do a bit of an Everton because in my last eight years we never finished outside the top eight.

"Sunderland have got potential which many clubs don't have, but we have to progress because we don't want to be in the position we have been although we know that's easier said than done. Winning for me is the biggest thing. I want to win."

The Black Cats signed Donald Love and Paddy McNair from Manchester United on Thursday, and Moyes is trying to line up their former teammates Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj. Fellaini was with Moyes at Everton before following him to Old Trafford, where he is trying to find first-team minutes under Mourinho. Moyes also had interest in another of his former Everton players, Phil Jageilka, but Stones' move to City has scuttled that possibility.

City have won four on the bounce in league play and five in a row overall over Sunderland, including a 4-1 romp in last season's corresponding fixture. Raheem Sterling, Toure and Bony all scored in the first 22 minutes, and De Bryune added a second-half tally after assisting on two of those first-half markers.

The Black Cats are winless in their last seven (0-1-6) in all contests versus City and 0-2-10 all-time in Premier League matches at Manchester City.

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