MANCHESTER, England (AP) - Proof of the struggles at Manchester City this season arrived when the Premier League’s team of the year was announced on Sunday.
Chelsea had six players included. Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham all had representatives.
City? Not one player.
Before the end of this season, the manager is under severe pressure and speculation is mounting that the best player could leave. Even the atmosphere inside the stadium is flat.
Just what has gone wrong at the soon-to-be-usurped English champions?
For the first time in five years, City is heading into May without any silverware to play for in the final month of the season. While Chelsea is preparing to hoist the Premier League trophy and Arsenal has an FA Cup final looming, all City has ahead is an offseason of major rebuilding work.
City manager Manuel Pellegrini finished last season by being thrown up in the air by his jubilant players after winning the Premier League title. Twelve months later and Pellegrini could be thrown out the door at Etihad Stadium.
Second - at best - in the league and the last 16 of the Champions League sounds like a pretty good season to City fans of a certain vintage, who recall the club’s slide to the third division in the mid-1990s. Not, though, to Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family who has invested more than $1.5 billion since his 2008 takeover.
“It is impossible for any club to progress always,” Pellegrini said after a last-gasp 3-2 win over relegation-threatened Aston Villa on Saturday. “We cannot win trophies every year.”
These comments are unlikely to go down well in Abu Dhabi, where Pellegrini faces a post-season debrief when his future will be decided.
Sustaining success in England’s top division has proved beyond every manager except Alex Ferguson, who retired in 2013 after winning 13 Premier League titles at Manchester United.
In 2012-13, City endured a slump in the season after winning the league title and it cost then-manager Roberto Mancini his job. The same has happened under Pellegrini.
City’s signings last year were strategic, intending to bolster areas of the squad that appeared light - like at goalkeeper, right back, center half and defensive midfield. As Chelsea was signing Diego Costa, Arsenal was bringing in Alexis Sanchez and Manchester United was spending $250 million, Willy Caballero, Bacary Sagna, Eliaquim Mangala, Fernando and an aging Frank Lampard were arriving at City. Hardly names to set the pulse racing.
In fairness to City, the club was restricted to a net spend of 49 million pounds ($75 million) after breaking financial fair play rules, but it didn’t stop them from splashing out a reported 42 million pounds ($64 million) on Mangala, the France center back who has failed to impress since joining from FC Porto.
Pellegrini said in a recent interview that his team needs a “crack” player that “gives you a kind of ascendancy, status.” Whether he’ll be around to see this happen is another question.
Some of City’s key players - like Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure - haven’t reached the level of last season in this post-World Cup campaign. The future of the 31-year-old Toure, who has been at the heart of City’s growth as a domestic force since 2010, is under particular scrutiny amid reported interest from Paris Saint-Germain and Inter Milan.
The average age of City’s squad is nearly 29, which reportedly is the highest in the Premier League and one of the highest in Europe. There is a general feeling it could do with an injection of youth.
“Now it seems like because we have not won something, it’s a disaster and we have to change seven or eight players, the manager,” Zabaleta said in quotes carried Tuesday in the British media. “That’s what people say.”
City has been linked with Belgium winger Kevin de Bruyne and Paul Pogba - the in-demand France midfielder who could be a like-for-like replacement for Toure - while Aleksandar Kolarov, Stevan Jovetic and Edin Dzeko are among the players expected to leave. Lampard is moving to Major League Soccer and the contract of versatile midfielder James Milner expires this season.
The biggest call City needs to make, though, is on Pellegrini, the Chilean who has brought serenity to the Etihad since replacing Mancini and has a playing philosophy that fits the holistic approach favored by City’s Spanish executives, CEO Ferran Soraino and director of football Txiki Beguiristain.
But is Pellegrini’s laid-back style leaving players in the comfort zone? Is he tactically astute enough to go head-to-head with Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal next season?
Juergen Klopp will be available once he leaves Borussia Dortmund and has already been linked with City. Pep Guardiola appears City’s dream manager but has pledged his immediate future to Bayern Munich. Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti and Napoli coach Rafa Benitez have also been mentioned, while Patrick Vieira - City’s head of youth development - is also a possible option.
It’s set to be a busy, intriguing offseason at City.
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