Manchester City preview: The next step

Continuing FOX Soccer’s tour through this season’s Barclays Premier League participants, we look at one of Sunday’s Community Shield participants – FA Cup holders Manchester City.

Questions about whether the Manchester City project would ever bear fruit were put to rest on May 14. After a scoreless half against Stoke City at Wembley, the Citizens had left open the chance that a goal against the run of play would extend their trophy drought into a 36th year. Then, just as he had in the FA Cup semifinal, Yaya Toure broke through, sending the Citizens on to their first FA Cup since 1969.

Even before Toure’s goal, City had already established itself amongst the Premier League’s elite. Their rise had make the term "Big Four" obsolete. With Tottenhem having qualified for Champions League and City on the verge of doing the same by the time they claimed their prize at Wembley, the Citizens were ushering in an era of new parity at the top of the league. While there is still a chasm between haves and have nots, at least the number of true contenders is growing.

Now, thanks to Arsenal’s epic collapse, City can think beyond their upstarts label. The Citizens had been frustrating for most of the `10-11 season, but with the FA Cup under their belts, they have finally taken the step towards becoming champions. This team can win games – it has all the parts and is finally gaining some belief. Roberto Mancini has one of the toughest jobs in all of sport, however: with a collection of talent (and egos) this vast, his man-management skills are going to be really put to the test.

Problem one is Carlos Tevez, who always performs on the field but has made no secret that he despises the city of Manchester, acting out in ways that have exhausted the team’s patience. City is fed up with his antics but not with his performance and have responded by telling suitors it will cost them $80 million is they want El Apache. Given that Tevez was the main man for them last season, it’s not entirely unreasonable. With Aguero coming in, might Tevez be tempted to stick around?

Problem two is Mario Balotelli, the poster-child for wayward talent. Famously unmanageable, his latest stunt — a showboating attempt to back-heel in a goal during a friendly against the LA Galaxy — got himself hauled off after half an hour. If he can’t control himself, he won’t be playing at all.

In the transfer market, City were relatively quiet at the beginning of summer, initially only picking up Gael Clichy from Arsenal and Stefan Savic from Partizan. As June and July passed, rumors around City focused on whether Tevez would stay. While there was the odd Javier Pastore or Samir Nasri rumor, it appeared the big move at Eastlands would be a going, not a coming.

Then City dropped the bomb, snagging Aguero from Atletico Madrid for $62 million, the biggest move of the summer to date. Aguero, who has been on fire both for club and country, is a ready-made replacement for the want-away Tevez … or, better yet, a complement for his countryman, with David Silva behind them both.

Starters and understudies

Particularly with the addition of another striker, City have such an overstuffed squad. Picking a first eleven is a bit like drawing lots. Joe Hart, coming off a career year, will be in the nets. Vincent Kompany also had a breakout season and is a sure starter. Micah Richards, Joleon Lescott and Aleksandar Kolarov formed the preferred back four, but Pablo Zabaleta, Clichy and new boy Savic are going to get time. and Kolo Toure will eventually return from his drugs suspension.

Nigel De Jong sits in front of the back four with Yaya Toure in front of him. The question marks come around James Milner and Gareth Barry, neither of whom have been particularly good for City. Barry usually starts to De Jong’s left in the 4-2-3-1. Going forward, it wouldn’t be surprised if Mancini tries someone else there.

David Silva starts and Kun Aguero is likely to as well. Where this leaves the frustrating Mario Balotelli and the halfway-out-the-door Tevez remains to be seen. Does this open the door for Adam Johnson, who can take the right channel, moving Silva left? And we haven’t even mentioned Edin Dzeko, the striker who was so potent with Wolfsburg. City also has a lot of guys sitting in purgatory — Craig Bellamy, Emmanuel Adebayor and Nedum Onouha come to mind.

Reading tea leaves

If Mancini can get all these guys on the same page — and that’s a big if — they can win the title. On paper, City should be the best team in the Premiership, with depth at nearly every position and five genuine world-class players who can change games by themselves. What they have lacked is continuity and fluidity, and a lot of that has to be put on the back of Mancini, who too often employs a defense-first approach instead of letting his guys fly.

If that changes, the Premier League can finally have a new titlist.