Great expectations sit lightly on City

The only time Manchester City didn’t win the Premier League since 2017-18, they finished second. Arsenal’s tally of 84 points in 2022-23 would have made them champions in nine seasons; that honour would have been Liverpool’s in 2018-19, and in all but two seasons of the league, when they amassed 97 points. But in the end, neither was good enough to match the relentlessness of the machine in sky blue.

Manchester City won the treble last season.(REUTERS)
Manchester City won the treble last season.(REUTERS)

And now, Manchester City are aiming to make history. The visit to Burnley on Friday (12:30am Saturday Indian time) will be the first step in attempting to win the Premier League for the fourth straight season. No team in the history of league football which began in England in 1888-89 has done that. So, all doubts of Manchester City being jaded now that the monkey of a first Champions League title is off their backs can be kicked to touch. If anything, you can bet that Pep Guardiola is sore that he can’t match his record of winning six trophies in a calendar year.

By winning the Community Shield, Arsenal nixed Guardiola’s chance of emulating what he had achieved at Barcelona in 2009. At best, including the Club World Cup and Super Cup, Guardiola can win six trophies this term. If Guardiola still feels like he did moments after winning the Champions League, City will push hard for all of them. “I don’t want, after one Champions League, to disappear, so work harder next season and be in there,” the Manchester City manager had said.

Like Sarina Wiegman for the England women’s football team, Guardiola is central to idea of Manchester City. He has introduced tactical innovations that course through the Premier League – ball-playing goalkeepers and full backs or centre-backs moving into the midfield – and he has the personality to ensure there is no discontent even when Jack Grealish spends most of his first season on the bench after being bought for £100m. If he is motivated, the squad will be too. “The challenge is massive for us. How starving are we? How is our desire to defend what we won?” Guardiola has said.

Immortalised with a statue at Etihad, Burnley manager Vincent Kompany will be the first to find out. Inspired by Guardiola, Kompany has turned Burnley around and got them back in the Premier League but about his former club, one that he once led, he has no doubts. “It’s impossible with the quality of that team – possibly the best team at the moment in world football but that’s the best challenge so I wouldn’t want it any different,” said Kompany.

Up next, after the Super Cup against Europa League winners Sevilla, is a home game against Newcastle. Another team backed by a state, or to be specific the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, Newcastle have risen from seasons of slumber. That game on August 19 could be an early pointer to how difficult City’s bid for a fourth will be. For, if there is one thing that can be said of them it is this: City tend to be slow off the blocks.

They dropped seven points in their first 10 games last term and that was an improvement on 10 and 12 points lost at that stage in 2021-22 and 2020-21 respectively. Given that City’s season ended in June, players may not be fresh physically and mentally, Guardiola has said. “We are not NBA that when you finish you have three months off to recover,” he said last Sunday after losing to Arsenal on penalties. Playing 60-odd games in a season is not healthy, City midfielder Rodri has said, the flipside of going deep in competitions and having players who are regulars for club and country. But challengers, beware. Guardiola also said he was happy with the intensity shown by City at Wembley.

lkay Gundogan has moved to Barcelona, Riyad Mahrez left for Al-Ahli in the Saudi Pro League and the buzz around Bernardo Silva leaving hasn’t died down. They will be missed. But such is the depth in the squad that beyond making inquiries about Lucas Paqueta, City are not looking for new signings after buying Croatia internationals Josko Gvardiol and Mateo Kovavic. If the experience of Grealish and Kalvin Phillips are anything to go by, both could be used sparingly in the first season as they get to understand how City play. With 53 goals and nine assists in 52 games, the phenomenal Erling Haaland was the exception to that rule.

Haaland will again be the tormentor in chief, one who keeps two defenders busy even in games he doesn’t score (there were 22 of them last season). But this is a club where the quality of Phil Foden and Julian Alvarez is often not enough to merit a place in the starting line-up. One where Grealish can dribble his way out of trouble (and if nothing else, win a free-kick), Kevin de Bruyne provides the magic while Rodri controls the midfield with a bit of help from John Stones moving up. City have quality defenders like Ruben Dias, Nathan Ake and Manuel Akanji, in Ederson they have a goalkeeper capable of passes that sometimes become assists and talented young players like Rico Lewis and Cole Palmer. It is just as well that reputation does not win football games.

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