WHAT WILL THE SEASON HOLD FOR MANCHESTER CITY AT THE EASTLANDS BIG TOP CIRCUS?
Football FanCast columnist Emily Brobyn looks ahead to the coming season and wonders what lies in store at Eastlands.
This time 12 months ago, Manchester City fans were awaiting the start of a new season with a refreshing optimism and a secret belief that season 2007/08 could be THE season for silverware. With the club benefitting from one of the most on-trend events in football, a foreign takeover, Dr Thaksin Shinawatra arrived and announced his intentions- to establish City as one of the top six teams in the Premier League.
Many critics laughed into their lattes, but Shinawatra was quick to put his plan into motion- and signalled his intent by recruiting former England tabloid favourite Sven Goran Eriksson as manager. Likewise, Eriksson wasted no time spending the controversial Thai's millions, shipping in a fresh, if relatively unknown, continental line-up. Petrov; the Bulgarian winger, pacey and crafty. Corluka; the young versatile Croat defender. Elano; the Brazilian magician with a talent for the sublime. Many more ran away from their former clubs in order to sign up and join ringmaster Sven's infectious City circus.
The media hype was encouraging- and as the season unfolded City emerged as the surprise package, topping the Premier League after playing confident and entertaining football. The majority of the new signings gelled well- Sven's men were surpassing all expectations.
Unfortunately, as we all know, City's form took a nosedive after the festive period. Despite City completing an unprecedented double over United, and ending the season on their best-ever points tally, the slump in former resulted in chairman Shinawatra re-thinking Sven's position of manager at the club. Fans were in uproar about the situation, but Shinawatra's mind had been made up. Sven was unceremoniously relieved of his duties- leaving City fans bewildered as to where their beloved blues would go from here.
After Sven's departure, Shinawatra moved quickly to fill the hottest seat in managerial football. Mark Hughes was unveiled in a press conference at Carrington to a whirl of flashbulbs, with the media throng scribbling frantically into their notepads. Also introduced to the public was City's ‘executive chairman' Garry Cooke; Cooke had been headhunted by City from his prolific job at Nike in America, in effect, to be Goose to Shinawatra's Maverick.
So now to the new season. So far, two new faces have been brought into Eastlands. Brazilian striker Jo was signed from CSKA Moscow for £18 million. The 21 year old has signed a four-year deal with City but will be unavailable for at least the first fortnight of the Premier League campaign due to his participation for Brazil at the Olympics in Beijing. Israeli international Tal Ben Haim was signed for a rumoured £5 million from Chelsea. The 26 year old defender will be a valuable asset to the City squad, after making his name under Sam Allardyce at Bolton.
Some of Sven's signings will be relied on to continue their success. As previously mentioned, Petrov, Elano and Corluka all impressed last season and so far during the pre-season games has proved to be lively and up to the task. Corluka, after participating in Euro 2008 for Croatia, looks particularly sharp and more experienced. Michael Johnson continues to play in midfield along another Euro 2008 graduate, Gelson Fernandes. The colossal defensive pairing of Micah Richards and Richard Dunne is reunited after Richard's injury woes and if Joe Hart continues his form, he just might be receiving a call from Fabio Capello for the World Cup qualifiers.
The main area of worry for most blues is upfront. With Benjani injured and Jo at the Olympics, Hughes is left with Darius Vassell, Rolando Bianchi and Danny Sturridge to score the goals. Sturridge is tipped for big things and the 2008/09 season could be exactly where he makes his mark- his pace coupled with sublime touches and creatively have already caught many City fans and pundit's eyes. Fingers crossed. Hughes should look to strengthen his squad in this area though before the season starts.
City have already progressed through to the UEFA Cup second qualifying round after defeating the Faroes Islands outfit EB/Streymur. The Blues won through 4-0 on aggregate and Hughes' men now face Danish side FC Midtjylland. Although City only reached the UEFA Cup through the Fair Play League, it comes with some irony that it was through Sven's management that City made it to Europe, and that Hughes' former side Blackburn Rovers finished last in the Fair Play League.
With the start of the season just a fortnight away, City have widely been tipped for at least a top eight finish. With Hughes getting tough at Carrington (banning iPods, mobile phones, agents and friends), the players' minds should be firmly focused on the task in hand. But Hughes will be well aware that finishing ninth last season wasn't good enough for Shinawatra- and I doubt it will be accepted second time around. Derby days are always explosive- but now there is added spice with Hughes crossing the Manchester divide to manage his former rivals. Hold on tight for the roller-coaster ride of life as a Manchester City fan- it's bound to be unpredictable, inconsistent and never dull. We wouldn't have it any other way though, would we?