Manchester City reclaimed its position as the top team in English football by winning the Premier League and the League Cup last season.
Next in the firing line for the club’s ambitious Abu Dhabi owners: Conquering Europe.
In its three years in the Champions League, City twice has failed to get out of the group stage and last year was eliminated by Barcelona in the last 16.
That’s a poor return for one of the world’s wealthiest clubs and for a team crammed with talent in every department.
“We won the league two times in three years and finished second. We won the FA Cup, (League) Cup – we have won everything in England,” City playmaker Samir Nasri said. “Now we have to see the bigger picture and try to do something in the Champions League.”
“With the players we have, that is what we need to do. Everyone has to be ambitious.”
Winning the Premier League, it appears, is the minimum requirement at Etihad Stadium nowadays. But neither of City’s recent championship successes have come easy.
In 2012, City scored twice in injury time to win its final match and beat great rival Manchester United to the title on goal difference. And last year, City won its last five matches to overhaul Liverpool in a title race that again went down to the last weekend.
City never has done things the easy way and it seems that’s not about to change even in the era of the Sheikh Mansour regime, when more than $1-billion has been spent on the first team since 2008.
The club appears to have learned its lessons from 2012, when it relaxed after ending a 44-year wait for an English league title and failed to make the kind of signings that could have led to a period of prolonged domestic dominance.
This time around, bound by a transfer spending cap of €60-million ($80-million) for breaching UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations, they have bought wisely and strengthened areas where they were short last season – namely in defence and central midfield.
Willy Caballero arrived from Malaga and is pushing first-choice goalkeeper Joe Hart, while Bacary Sagna gives Pellegrini a strong option as an alternative right back to fans’ favourite Pablo Zabaleta after joining from Arsenal as a free agent. On Monday, France centre back Eliaquim Mangala – a long-term target – joined from FC Porto for a reported 32 million pounds ($54-million), easily the club’s most expensive acquisition of the off-season.
Fernando, a £12-million pound ($20-million) recruit also from Porto, will provide depth to central midfield as will Frank Lampard, who will spend the first half of the season on loan from MLS side New York City – one of the clubs jointly owned by City – after his departure from Chelsea.
The new recruits may lack the name recognition of those from recent years but they join an already-strong squad and Pellegrini’s biggest success arguably is keeping hold of key midfielder Yaya Toure, who hinted he could leave City at the end of last season. “The matter is closed now. The most important thing was to try to focus again,” Toure said. “This year is going to be fantastic. We’ve got some fantastic players coming in and important players are staying. If you want to be the best you need to win every trophy possible, and the Champions League is a target this year.”
With Toure on board, City still has probably the strongest team in the league although it starts the season as second favourite behind Chelsea with most British bookmakers. Sunday’s 3-0 loss to Arsenal in the Community Shield – a friendly between the teams that won the Premier League and FA Cup – won’t worry Pellegrini.
City’s prolific attack – led by Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, David Silva and Nasri – is its strength and Stevan Jovetic looks like becoming an increasingly important member of the strike force after impressing in preseason.
After beginning his tenure at City with two trophies, expect silverware to keep coming for Pellegrini.