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Premiership Preview–8. Manchester City

Manchester City’s 2007-2008 campaign was their best since rejoining the Premiership after a few years of purgatory in England’s lower levels. Manager Sven-Göran Eriksson compiled a very respectable 19-11-15 record in his first year on the job, guiding the club to a 9th-place finish, a trip to the Carling Cup quarterfinals, and a berth in the UEFA Cup through their fair play record.

Things were looking up with the global ensemble — Elano (Brazil), Martin Petrov (Bulgaria), Vedran Corluka (Croatia), Rolando Bianchi (Italy), Javier Garrido (Spain), Gelson Fernandes (Switzerland), and Benjani (Zimbabwe) — acquired by the Swede either last summer or, in Benjani’s case, the January transfer window. The promise of the future, however, wasn’t enough for impatient owner and accused human rights abuser and tax evader, among other things, Thaksin Shinawatra. The deposed, then exiled, former prime minster of Thailand relieved Eriksson of his duties in early June.

In effect, Shinawatra said that the job Eriksson did simply wasn’t good enough, and then-Blackburn manager Mark Hughes was tapped to take the reins. Hughes was certainly a competent boss for Rovers and knows the surrounding area well, having spent the majority of his playing career at Manchester United and then leading Blackburn, located in suburban Manchester. Now he’s back in the city proper and inherits the very solid roster left by Eriksson.

The Welsh manager has made one significant improvement, though, in the form of Jô, a terrific young (21) Brazilian striker with a prodigious strike record at CSKA Moscow, his last club. The transfer fee, a club-record, was undisclosed — it was rumored to be in the neighborhood of $40 million — and Jô brings explosiveness and goal-scoring ability that City didn’t have in their forwards last season. Israeli international Tal Ben Haim was acquired from Chelsea, likely as cover behind the incumbent starting center backs, Micah Richards and Richard Dunne.

Hughes has trimmed some of the fat off the team as well, both literally and figuratively. Emile Mpenza (released), Georgios Samaras (moved to Celtic), and Paul Dickov (relased) were all part of that disappointing group of strikers a year ago, with those three combining for a miserable two league goals, both scored by Mpenza. To be fair, Dickov was shipped out on loan to two Championship clubs last season, Crystal Palace and Blackpool, but was on City’s roster for a short time. Geovanni was a versatile utility player for Eriksson, coming off the bench 17 times in the Premiership, but Hughes opted to release him as well. Andreas Isaakson’s injury-plagued tenure at City ended when he left for PSV Eindhoven, though he’s no big loss either as Joe Hart has entrenched himself as the starting goalkeeper. After six seasons and 130 league appearances for Sun Jihai, the Chinese full back moved to Sheffield United on a free transfer.

All-in-all, Hughes has clearly improved his squad and lost no one of consequence. The back line, including Hart between the sticks, is his strongest asset. City conceded 53 goals last season, but that total is inflated by the 8 given up against Middlesbrough in the final game of the year. I personally felt like — and still do — that that performance was the City players’ way of protesting the speculation surrounding Sven’s future with the club, which was very much in doubt even then. This group isn’t that poor, and the team truly looked as if they were barely going through the motions for the duration of the match.

Richards and Dunne, the club captain, headline the back four. Richards has enormous potential and great ability already for his age (20), and can also play right back, which he does with the England national team. Ben Haim provides capable depth behind the two and is good enough to challenge for playing time if either of the starters’ form slips dramatically. At 6’4″, Corluka isn’t a prototypical right back, but he’s very, very good and still only 22. He’s physical, can get up and down the flank, and has a terrific “soccer IQ”, meaning he really understands the game. Hart is just 21 and is regarded as England’s keeper of the future, though Scott Carson may have something to say about that. Hart isn’t as tall as others at his position, limiting his ability to claim balls in the air, but he makes up for it with his superior positioning. The weak link in City’s defense is at left back, where Garrido and Michael Ball, who is best known for stamping on Cristiano Ronaldo’s stomach in a Manchester derby two seasons ago, essentially shared the starting role last year. Both like to go forward, but neither chip in much on the attack. Nedum Onouha, another youngster, has sprinter’s speed and can fill in in the center or on the right.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Hart

RB: Corluka
CB: Richards
CB: Dunne (captain)
LB: Garrido

RMF: Stephen Ireland
CMF: Michael Johnson
AMF: Elano
LMF: Petrov

*ST: Benjani

*Jô will miss the start of the season due to his participation in the Olympics for Brazil. Benjani has a thigh strain that could keep him out into September. In their places, you’ll likely see Valeri Bojinov and Darius Vassell.

City’s UEFA Cup commitment forces them to play five games in August, rather than the three that will be played by most other Premiership clubs. Three of those five come in a six-day span — West Ham on the 24th, @FC Midtjylland on the 28th in the second leg of their UEFA Cup second qualifying round tie, and Sunderland two days after their return from Denmark. City starts the season at Aston Villa, which will be an interesting game between two European contenders.

September isn’t as congested, but it’s still difficult. City hosts Chelsea and Portsmouth before traveling to Wigan in a must-win game to end the month.

Liverpool comes to town on the first Saturday of October, the toughest game in a relatively straightforward month that also features Newcastle (away), Stoke City (home), and Middlesbrough (away).

The trend of home games against top teams continues in December, when Tottenham, Arsenal, and Manchester United travel to the City of Manchester Stadium to face Hughes’ men. City also pays visits to Bolton and Hull City in that month and again, those are likely must-win games given the quality of those other three opponents.

It’s because of that trend that the second half of City’s schedule is tougher by far. Of course the opponents are the same but since the schedule balances out, City has to play each of the league’s best teams on their home ground the second time around. The Citizens have to make hay during the first half of the year, which they did last season, because they’re probably going to struggle down the back stretch to close things out.

Bottom Line: The defense is very capable, the midfield is above average, but the strikers are where this team will be made or broken. You have to score goals, and a ton of them, to compete with the likes of Tottenham, Aston Villa, Portsmouth, and each of those teams has better options up front than City. Jô needs to have a great debut season and carry the load, because I’m not sure how much they’re going to get from Benjani, Bianchi, Vassell, and Valeri Bojinov. Shinawatra has shown that he can be quick on the trigger, so if City struggles this year, Hughes may find himself on the way out.

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  1. Weston

    August 8, 2008 at 9:01 am

    Hutton has a wicked case of gout apparently, so some cover for him couldn’t hurt for the time being.

  2. Michael

    August 7, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    Corluka?? No, he’s a natural right back who can fit in in the center as a defensive midfielder. He’s one of the best right backs in Europe, to be honest with you, and is too skilled offensively to be used in the center on a permanent basis.

  3. SamSpur

    August 7, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    Michael, because he’s versatile enough to play center back (supposedly his best position) as well as cover at right back and defensive midfield. At Spurs, he’ll play mostly CB.

  4. Michael

    August 7, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    SamSpur, Tottenham just signed Alan Hutton in January, why would they go after another right back? If it was for cover, I could understand it, but that’s not the case.

  5. nordenblue

    August 7, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    samspur…..dream on, corluka is going nowhere, this story is another example of southern based journalists trying to unsettle a player for a southern club’s benefit.IF corluka did go it would be to a bigger club than city which rules spurs out.

  6. Ryan

    August 7, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Unfortunately I think SamSpur is right, and I would much rather have a returning from injury Bojinov over Vassel.

  7. SamSpur

    August 7, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Corluka won’t be on the bench, he’ll be at spurs. early next week at the latest. Man City are up sh*ts creek with no cash and need to sell a few.

  8. Ole

    August 7, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    OK mister right. I made some points, you missed most of them. Benjani is also injured but allowed to be picked by others ?
    My selection was not for the Villa game anyway and you did see it was Benjani over Vasell.
    OK I leave this site for you. Bye

  9. Michael

    August 7, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    Corluka on the bench??????? Are you kidding me??? Sorry, that’s a non-starter for me, you’re crazy. Bojinov, who’s just getting healthy again, over Benjani or Vassell? Come on.

  10. Ole

    August 7, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    I would like to play Benjani as a RM, Richards as RB so he can go forward with Haim & Dunne i center. Elano, Corluka & Evans on the bench.
    GK: Hart

    RB: Richards
    CB: Dunne (captain)
    CB: Haim
    LB: Garrido

    RMF: Benjani
    CMF: Johnson
    CMF: Ireland
    LMF: Petrov

    ST: Jô
    ST: Bojinov

  11. Michael

    August 7, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    Anonymous, Bojinov is the traditional spelling, sorry to break it to you. Ben Haim isn’t a left back, and I don’t think he’s ever played there. Also, it’s Ched Evans, not Chad, it’s Fernandes, not Fernandez, and it’s Hamann, not Harmann. Don’t correct my spelling when you can’t do it right either.

    David, the point is, Shinawatra shouldn’t even be in the game, and he knows nothing about it. If he did, there’s no way Sven would’ve been let go. If you do the research, you’ll see that City had their best in a long time last year, and were looking good for the future. That still wasn’t enough for Shinawatra, who, as Weston said, should be in jail.

  12. Weston

    August 7, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Ironic you say that his mentioning that Man City has an owner who is a dirty, corrupt ex-politician makes Michael lose credibility…

    I hope man city crash and burn this year – Thaksin should be in prison, not swimming in money.

  13. David

    August 7, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    “The promise of the future, however, wasn’t enough for impatient owner and accused human rights abuser and tax evader, among other things, Thaksin Shinawatra.

    Just what has the above sentence to do with the article? As soon as I read it your whole credibility was lost

  14. Anonymous

    August 7, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    Garrido, Ireland, Elano, and Benjani will be squad players. Bozhinov (Bojinov is incorredt btw) will play up front with Jo and Chad Evans will be more and more involved. Either Fernandez or Harmann will partner Johnson in midfield, unless Hughes gets the holding midfield player he is looking for. I also think Ben Haim will play left full back.
    And finally. Blackburn is as much a suberb of Manchester as Liverpool is!!

  15. Michael

    August 7, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    Yep, and he had a goal disallowed. Good appearance for him.

  16. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    August 7, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Jo looked lively for Brazil today coming on for Pato in minute 75. He helped create space and Brazil edged out a win at the end despite a pretty poor effort.

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