Pressure now all on Roberto Mancini
IT’S ONE of those classic football discussion points. Which is harder – winning your first league title or retaining it the following year?
Much can depend on whether you have outspent your rivals during the summer and in which positions you have been able to strengthen. An argument which, on paper at least, suggests Roberto Mancini might have his work cut out holding on to top spot after last season’s feat in guiding Manchester City to the summit for the first time in 44 years.
Mancini’s problem, as he contemplates another gruelling nine-month campaign that gets under way next weekend, is that anything other than a successful defence of the title – unless City win the Champions League – will be considered a backward step by his Abu Dhabi paymasters who rewarded him with a nice fat long-term contract in the aftermath of the most dramatic climax to a season since the Premier League began 20 years ago.
But if the definition of progress, however ugly, is spend, spend, spend, then what are we to make of City’s title hopes second time round? Today’s Community Shield against Chelsea will not tell us much. And let’s not forget there are two weeks to go before the transfer window closes with plenty of time to do business.
But as things stand now City have yet to take a significant step into the transfer market, a source of clear frustration for Mancini yet perhaps inevitable given that UEFA’s financial fair play rules are beginning to bite – and City badly need to offload first in order to balance the wages bill.
That’s for the boardroom. All Mancini cares about, understandably, is strengthening his squad and bringing in new recruits to freshen things up. The anticipated arrival of Robin van Persie now seems certain not to happen, with Manchester United favourites to land the Arsenal star, whilst other targets, including Daniel Agger and Daniele de Rossi, have also failed to materialise.
“I am not happy,” said Mancini, who clearly feels further improvements are needed.
“It is my opinion that we have a good team but we built this team two years ago and you need to continue to improve in every way.”
Frustratingly the only player for whom there has been considerable interest is one he doesn’t want to lose, the mercurial, controversial Mario Balotelli.
“This summer, we had a lot of requests for him,” said Mancini. “Many important teams wanted him. I didn’t think about saying yes because he is young and we are sure he can improve and be an important player for the club.”
And then, Chelsea. Rarely can a team have turned abject failure (sixth place) into dramatic triumph (Champions League glory) quite so spectacularly. Roberto di Matteo’s full-time appointment was one of Roman Abramovich’s more logical moves, the right reward for the Italian steadying the ship and pulling off a feat that even eluded Jose Mourinho. Personally, I have my doubts whether Di Matteo will be able to stand the heat for an entire campaign but unlike at City, the chequebook has come out despite the need for UEFA-imposed constraint. As well as Brazilian playmaker Oscar, Belgian starlet Eden Hazard, below right, has arrived from Lille for £32m along with his younger brother Thorgan, from Lens, himself a youth international.
On the back of the Champions League triumph, striker Fernando Torres, in the absence of the now departed Didier Drogba, is primed for a resurgence. He said: “I would love to win a Premier League, for sure we will be challenging for it.”
So, of course, will Manchester United. Yet even at Old Trafford the natives are restless. United have been trying desperately to raise more money to offload mounting debts accumulated by the Glazers.
As a result, funds for squad strengthening have been limited but Sir Alex Ferguson still hopes to prize Van Persie from Arsenal to join Shinji Kagawa and Nick Powell.
Of the other usual suspects, no one will be under more pressure than Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger who, despite constant claims to the contrary, badly needs silverware – preferably the title – but Wenger is resigned to losing his most prized asset, Van Persie.
He has reacted by adding strong reinforcements in Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla, having finally seemed to have learned the lesson that doing things his way and steadfastly refusing to raid the transfer market, however laudable, simply doesn’t result in the necessary investment.
If anyone is to upset the usual suspects, it is unlikely to be Tottenham, whose recruitment of Andre Villas-Boas is a long-term strategy rather than a short-term post-Harrry Redknapp panic move.
The most intriguing place to look when the action starts next weekend is surely Anfield, where the appointment of Brendan Rodgers to succeed Kenny Dalglish could prove the masterstroke of the close season. Joe Allen has just been signed from Rodgers’ former club and the question now is whether the new Anfield manager, such a breath of fresh air at Swansea, is too untried and untested at this far more lofty level.
A gamble? For sure but Liverpool’s American owners had to change direction and the much admired Northern Irishman will be keen to repay their faith.
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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