Sterling boost but City senior trio must shine for title bid
04 August 2015, 12:32
Manchester - Manchester City has gambled on Raheem Sterling being the key signing that manager Manuel Pellegrini needs to lift his team back to the top of English soccer.
But it likely won't be the fortunes of the 20-year-old England winger — the most expensive acquisition in Europe this offseason at 49 million pounds ($76 million) — that will determine whether City wins the Premier League title for the third time in five years.
Pellegrini needs big seasons from his three most important senior players if the third and, as it stands, final year of his tenure at Etihad Stadium is to end in his second English championship after winning in 2014.
Since 2010, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero have been the spine of a City team that has catapulted from drifting underachiever to formidable heavyweight, in England if not yet in Europe. But question marks hang over all three going into the new season.
Can Kompany regain the form that made him one of the world's top rated defenders two years ago? Last season, the Belgian's performances were substandard — his positional play was poor, he dived into tackles, he was injured and, eventually, he couldn't get in the team despite being captain.
Is Toure up for the fight, and another tough year in what is widely seen as the most grueling division in European soccer? The powerful central midfielder is the most destructive force in England at his peak but his motivation levels were questioned last season amid speculation about him leaving. He will be 33 by the time the season finishes.
And can Aguero stay fit and shoulder the burden of being City's chief striker in what is set to be a 4-5-1 formation, different to Pellegrini's traditional 4-4-2? The Argentina international was the league's top scorer last season with 26 goals, but has regular spells out injured that often prove damaging for his club.
With the players at Pellegrini's disposal, it will be a major surprise if City loses its now-accustomed spot in the top four. City has finished first or second for the last four years and, in Spain playmaker David Silva, has another of the most admired players in the English game.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho says Arsenal should challenge his team for its championship this season. But it's most likely City that Mourinho fears most, even if Pellegrini's team put up an abject title defense last campaign that was over by early spring.
As well as Sterling, City has signed central midfielder Fabian Delph from Aston Villa as a replacement for the departed James Milner, whose absence deprives Pellegrini of his most versatile and hard-working squad member.
City's transfer business likely won't end there, with Pellegrini sure to sign another forward as Stevan Jovetic has joined Inter Milan on loan and Edin Dzeko reportedly is on his way to Roma.
The season is beginning with rumors already having returned of Bayern Munich's Pep Guardiola being lined up as Pellegrini's successor next summer. The Chilean incumbent knows his time could soon be up, hardly a strong platform on which to work.
But regaining the league trophy would make him arguably the most successful manager City has ever had. Could that make the Abu Dhabi-based hierarchy think twice about letting him go?
Here are some other things to know about City ahead of the new season:
City is making progress in the Champions League — albeit very slow progress.
In its first two seasons in the competition, City didn't get out of the group stage. In its most recent two seasons, the Blues have exited in the first knockout round, both times to Barcelona.
That record is not good enough for City's owners, considering the cash injection they have made since buying the club in 2008.
Pellegrini will hope for an easier group than last year, when it was drawn against Bayern Munich and Roma, and for some luck in the draw for the last 16.
City has twice conceded four goals in preseason games, to Real Madrid and Stuttgart, and defensively has looked in disarray at times.
Martin Demichelis and Eliaquim Mangala ended last season as the central-defensive pairing, keeping four clean sheets in the final six games despite looking vulnerable, but Kompany is set to be given another chance. Whichever two play, they require a stronger midfield shield from the likes of Fernando, Fernandino and Toure than they got last season.
Pellegrini also appears unsure who is the stronger left back: Gael Clichy or Aleksandar Kolarov.
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