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Champions League or bust. Take II.

13 August 2010

There’s no feeling quite like the day before the dawn of a new season. Baseball’s Opening Day has a great fresh-start vibe, but you don’t get the same nervous excitement prior to that like you do in the run-up to the start of a new Premier League season. The stakes are so much higher — especially when the opener has such huge potential implications.

City’s development was arrested last season by the seven-match streak of draws late in the Mark Hughes Era and by the late-season slump in home form that resulted in surprise losses at Eastlands to both United and Spurs in the final weeks. The finish (fifth) and point total (67) were the best in the club’s Premier League history, but when the goals are fourth place and 70 points, there was no reasonable way to look at the season as anything other than a disappointing underachievement.

That’s the strange thing about City’s situation. They’re expected to achieve the previously unachievable. It’s hard for some of my fellow City fans to grasp. In a poll on the Manchester Evening News website after the end of last season, over 90 percent of voters felt the 2009-2010 season had been a success. The mystical qualities attributed to the shirt appear to have a powerful hold on English fans.

After another summer of big spending, it will be interesting to see if those fans can move on from the “Typical City” attitude that has characterized the club in the past and accept that perhaps only Chelsea boast a 25-man squad to compare with City’s. Jérôme Boateng, Yaya Touré, David Silva, Aleksandar Kolarov, Mario Balotelli, and soon James Milner achieve the stated goal of having two world class players at each position, while giving Roberto Mancini myriad options to tailor his team to a given opponent.

This means some departures that are painful for City fans, like lifelong Blue Nedum Onuoha heading out on loan (and probably eventually being sold) to Sunderland, Martin Petrov leaving on a free transfer to Bolton, and the imminent departures of last season’s second-best player, Craig Bellamy, and fan-favorite Stephen Ireland.

A UK media openly rooting against City are placing their hopes on two things negatively impacting City this season: the time necessary for the new pieces to gel, and squad rotation causing dressing room disharmony. As last season showed, the need for a bedding down period is a bit of a myth, as City boasted a 100-percent record through their first five games. And assuming they don’t crash out in the upcoming Europa League playoff tie against Romanian side Timisoara, competing in four different competitions this season should allow for plenty of matches for everyone in the squad.

In the immediate aftermath of last season’s bitter failure, the Europa League seemed like an unwanted distraction. However, with City having qualified on merit –rather than by sportsmanship — for a European competition for the first time in decades, I’m now looking forward to it. I had a good time familiarizing myself with some different clubs around Europe two seasons ago and enjoyed the Thursday European matches. The oddsmakers have anointed City favorites to win the competition at 15/2, and that certainly would be a great way to remove that Stretford End banner.

However, the Europa League is a marathon, and all sorts of things can go wrong along the way. City’s best chances at silverware this season will be the Carling Cup and FA Cup, in that order. With a second XI capable of competing for a European place on their own, Mancini will have the luxury of rotating his squad for cup matches while still enjoying a massive talent edge in pretty much any tie.

In the league, City’s talent dictates that they should be in the mix for the title, but I’ll be satisfied with fourth place and happy with third. Anything below fourth place would be disastrous, as the club need Champions League revenues as soon as possible to get in line with UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations that go into effect in a few years. That should be very achievable, as Chelsea have treaded water in the transfer market (while getting older), United’s improvements essentially are limited to Javier Hernández, and Spurs have stood pat. Arsenal look to be improved with the additions of Marouane Chamakh and Laurent Koscielny, and Liverpool should be better than last season, but the oddsmakers agree City are in good shape, giving 1/2 odds for a Top Four finish.

As I found out last season, those sorts of expectations do take a lot of the fun out of the matches. Facing other title contenders will provide opportunities for joy, but there’s little to be found in taking care of business against the Wigans and West Hams of the league. (Though at this point, a home win over Fulham would be cause for celebration after three straight debacles in the home fixture against the Cottagers.) Still, I’m brimming with excitement for the start of what should be a momentous season in the club’s history.

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