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Man City ready for blast-off

Clockwise from top left: Emmanuel Adebayor, Mark Hughes, Carlos Tevez, Gareth Barry and Kolo Toure
Mark Hughes has spent big money this summer in a bid to break into the top four

By Chris Bevan

It is fitting that Manchester City's owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan turned his attention to space travel over the summer - his club hope to soar into a different orbit this season.

Sheikh Mansour invested £170m in Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic project at the end of July - roughly the same amount he has spent over the last 12 months in an attempt to rocket City into the top four of the Premier League.

Unsurprisingly, expectations around Eastlands are sky-high - almost the same altitude as the cruising height of the planned spacecraft - with City's long-suffering fans finally daring to dream of success and silverware.

More than 10,000 of them attended an open training session at the club's stadium last week to catch a first glimpse of new signings like Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor and Gareth Barry on home turf, and the excitement level is intense.

SHEIKH MANSOUR'S MAN CITY BUYS
Robinho £32.5m
Wayne Bridge £12m
Craig Bellamy £14m
Nigel De Jong £18m
Shay Given £8m
Gareth Barry £12m
Stuart Taylor Free
Roque Santa Cruz £17m
Carlos Tevez £25.5m
Emmanuel Adebayor £23m
Kolo Toure £14m
TOTAL = £176m

City boss Mark Hughes has tried his best to play down the furore but, when addressing the masses with an on-pitch microphone, said he "senses we are at the start of something special" and wants to "open a new chapter in the club's history".

The Welshman was more typically reserved in the press conference that followed, reverting to what he calls "the party line" when asked about his side's ambitions for the forthcoming campaign. In other words, "we will do as well as we can".

But he is clearly relishing the prospect of competing on an equal footing with Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal over the coming months and, thanks to City's oil-rich owners, attempting to gatecrash their monopoly at the summit of the top-flight.

"The excitement is tangible," Hughes said. "Everyone connected with the club is feeling the anticipation of a season we hope is going to be very successful for us.

Carlos Tevez poster
Sir Alex Ferguson was infuriated by City's poster of Tevez on Deansgate

"This season, because of the speculation and the focus that has been on us, it's more intense, but possibly more exciting as a consequence. Now everyone just wants to kick off and get down to the real stuff."

But can City live up to the hype, starting with their trip to Blackburn on Saturday? They will have to improve on last season for a start.

That campaign was blighted by poor defending, a dreadful away record and occasional infighting. City were in the relegation zone at Christmas and suffered humiliating defeats to lower division opposition in the Carling Cup (League One side Brighton) and the FA Cup (Championship strugglers Nottingham Forest).

There were bright moments too of course - plenty of goals were scored during some thumping home wins that were part of a formidable record at Eastlands and City enjoyed a fine run to the Uefa Cup quarter-finals to boot.

But far more is expected domestically this time, not least because City do not have to worry about being distracted by European competition. Last season's 10th-place finish put paid to that.

Hughes has been set a target of a top-six finish to keep his job by his chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak but that is clearly the minimum requirement, and the huge investment he has made in his squad will bring new problems.

He must bed in the new faces, then quickly work out his strongest team and the best formation and tactics to get the most out of them, while trying to keep those outside his starting XI happy.

Premier League - away wins in 2008/09

Any dressing room discord will be exasperated by the huge difference in pay between some of City's new signings and existing squad members and, for Hughes himself, a poor or even average start will bring more speculation about his own future.

The 45-year-old has already had to deal with almost constant sniping from rival managers this summer and, after 14 turbulent months following his arrival from Ewood Park, things are unlikely to get any easier for him in the immediate future.

Hughes, to his credit, has remained cool, calm and composed under fire - and there have been plenty of pot-shots aimed in his direction from other Premier League bosses recently.

United supremo Sir Alex Ferguson responded to City hoisting a giant billboard of Tevez in the centre of Manchester by calling his blue neighbours "a small club with a small mentality" adding that they are "arrogant" and "will struggle to get into the top four".

606: DEBATE

In contrast, Martin O'Neill and Harry Redknapp - who, as managers of Aston Villa and Tottenham, are likely be two of City's main rivals for a top-six berth - have tried to up the ante by claiming City should be title contenders this season.

Meanwhile, on the transfer front, Everton boss David Moyes accused Hughes of being "disrespectful" over his so-far unsuccessful pursuit of Toffees defender Joleon Lescott, while Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger describes his expensive recruitment drive as a "gamble" and Ferguson sees it as "crazy".

Hughes has his critics in the stands too. Some fans are unconvinced that he is the right man to lead City into their brave new world, mostly because of last season's inconsistency but also because his status from his playing days as an Old Trafford legend counts against him.

Joleon Lescott beats Richard Garcia to a header
Lescott has emerged as City's main defensive target this summer

BBC Radio Manchester's Ian Cheeseman, a lifelong Blue who has covered City home and away for eight years, feels Hughes will need to keep his thick skin, particularly while his team settles down in the next few weeks.

Cheeseman told BBC Sport: "The fear is that we have signed players who were available and fitted the bill and now it is a case of trying to mould them into a team, rather than having what the top four already have which is an established team with established players and an established way of playing.

"You can think of any of the top four and immediately conjure up in your mind the way that team will play. With City, we don't know that yet.

"You can guess at it but there isn't that pattern for these players to come into. The biggest challenge for Mark Hughes is to make them fit a system that hasn't yet been established.

"And, because so much money has been spent, everybody is waiting to jump on City's backs if they lose a game and that might hinder them a little bit. Hughes is actually going to need a little time now to get this right.

"You know what City fans are like - some of them are talking about getting together and wearing tin-hats for games because it is going to be that sort of season. Everyone at the club is going to have a lot of flak thrown at them.

"They have to do what Fergie does at United and have a siege mentality when everybody is having a go at them."

However City line up this weekend, it is clear Hughes has tried to address some of the issues that held City back last season and, while the club tried and failed to land global stars like Kaka and Sammy Eto'o in the last few months, Hughes has succeeded in overhauling the squad he inherited. It is now his team.

ASTON VILLA v MAN CITY (17 Aug 08)
City [4-4-1-1]: Hart; Corluka, Richards, Ben-Haim, Garrido; Etuhu, Gelson, Johnson, Petrov; Elano; Evans

From the side that began last season's opening-day defeat against Aston Villa, only Micah Richards is likely to start against Rovers - and even his place is not certain.

Among the players to have departed is Brazilian Elano, who was a fans' favourite and a brilliant playmaker on his day but had a stormy relationship with Hughes, who still has plenty of big egos to massage in his squad but seems to have thought carefully about the character of the men he has brought to the club.

BLACKBURN v MAN CITY (15 Aug 09)
City (possible) [4-1-3-2]: Given; Richards, Dunne, Toure, Bridge; Barry; Wright-Phillips, Ireland, Robinho; Tevez, Adebayor

"You can see the pattern, even in January," added Cheeseman. "With the players he has signed, their personalities are as important as their playing attributes.

"Elano didn't like the way he perceived he was being treated last year and his reaction meant he was seen as a disruptive influence in the dressing room and as being counter-productive to what Hughes was trying to achieve.

"There are always two sides to every argument and Elano is absolutely fantastic talent, who in my opinion would be in their starting XI even now, but Hughes is the manager and he got what he wanted - Elano left.

"With many of his signings, they are players he has had some connection with - from Roque Santa Cruz and Craig Bellamy at Blackburn to Wayne Bridge at Southampton.

"There is a thread there of signing people he knows a lot about. And, even if he doesn't know them personally, his five big signings this summer all have proven Premier League class."

City's biggest failing last term was their soft centre - they conceded 50 League goals and constantly looked vulnerable at the back.

Premier Leage - goals scored in 2008/09

Toure's signing will undoubtedly help in that department but Hughes is still waiting to complete the revamp of his back-four after Chelsea captain John Terry decided to stay at Stamford Bridge and with Moyes adamant Lescott is going nowhere, despite the England international's desire to move on.

Another top-class defender remains top of Hughes' agenda but a change in approach further up the field could turn out to be just as important.

Cheeseman explained: "Hughes played with one up front last season and his argument when he was criticised by some of the fans for doing so was that he didn't have the personnel to play the way he really wanted to.

Everyone connected with the club is feeling the anticipation of a season we hope is going to be very successful for us

Manchester City boss Mark Hughes

"There was a tendency for City to be a bit gung-ho when they were going forward to support that single striker, which left the back four very exposed.

"Suddenly Richard Dunne was being made to look a bit of a plonker and everybody was saying he isn't the player he was. I thought that was a bit harsh on him, and City's problems were more to do with there being a huge gap between City's attacking midfield and their defence.

"Hughes will be able to change the shape to how he wants it this year. You would assume that Tevez is going to start every game as a second striker behind either Adebayor and Santa Cruz, and having Barry, along with Nigel De Jong or Vincent Kompany, means he is able to tighten that midfield up."

It might be a little while yet before Hughes can field his first-choice side, however, if he even knows it.

City's pre-season was disrupted by injuries to Barry and Toure, although both are now fit, but Santa Cruz has not played at all and is sidelined until the end of August, while Tevez has featured for only 23 minutes in a friendly win over Celtic.

City ready to match expectations - Hughes

Therefore, 'patience' is likely to remain their manager's mantra for the next few weeks at least. He is lucky that the club's board share his long-term outlook.

But, even if it does take them a while to get going, this season still undoubtedly represents City's best opportunity to secure a first top-flight top-five finish since 1992, and a first trophy since they won the League Cup in 1976.

Whether they can achieve either, both, or go one-better and crack the top four will be clearer after their first five League games.

After starting against three teams - Blackburn, Wolves, and Portsmouth - who they will be expected to beat comfortably enough, City's next two opponents - Arsenal and Manchester United - will give us an idea of how Hughes' men measure up against the big guns.

Like their owner, City are a club reaching for the stars. They are just as capable of falling flat on their face but, whatever their fate, it will make fascinating viewing over the coming months.



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see also
Lawro on Manchester City
10 Aug 09 |  Man City
Man City must be patient - Hamann
14 Aug 09 |  Man City
Hughes 'the right man for Man City'
14 Aug 09 |  Man City
Blackburn will target City stars
14 Aug 09 |  Blackburn
Moyes slams Man City over Lescott
14 Aug 09 |  Everton
Man City can win title - O'Neill
29 Jul 09 |  Man City
Man City a small club - Ferguson
26 Jul 09 |  Man Utd
Man City owner top of rich list
07 Jan 09 |  Football
Man City buyers complete takeover
23 Sep 08 |  Man City


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