Friday, September 18, 2009

Will Manchester City Ever Be United?

This weekend sees Manchester United take on their city rivals, Manchester City, at Old Trafford, in what is certain to be one of the defining games of the season. Welcome to Manchester...

In recent years the game had just about become a guaranteed three points for City's more illustrious rivals, United. However, enter one Sheik with a bottomless pit of money, an interest in football, and a club starved of trophies, and you have all the ingredients for a phoenix-like rise for the blue club in Manchester.

In little over a year, Mark Hughes has been able to command the kind of transfer kitty that most clubs only dream about. He has spent just over £200m in those 12 months as City look to put themselves in a more prominent position on the football map.

Bookmakers have paid close attention, and City's odds for winning the English Premier League title have plummeted from 150/1 to only 15/1. And while they may still be distant fifth favourites for the title, they are recognised by all to be the closest team to breaking the top four's monopoly.

The club has been completely re-structured both on and off the field.

Not one player remains in the starting XI from the City team who played in the opening fixture of last year's league campaign.

Garry Cook has given Mark Hughes a mandate to put City on the footballing map, while he oversees the commercial overhaul of the club. Both he and Hughes have decided on certain players to bring to the club, both in terms of footballing ability and their commercial earning power.

Players such as Robinho, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, and Carlos Tevez have been targeted for massive sums of money but in signing these players, City have taken a leaf from Real Madrid's book and bought players who are well known in places like China, Japan, and India.

All are countries where City are looking to expand their commercial enterprise.

This is a part of the club that most fans don't see and pay little attention to, but the income stream that can be generated in these countries is vital for the club going forward, regardless of the vast financial wealth of their owners.

On the pitch, the club have bought exciting players like Robinho, Sean Wright-Philips, Adebayor, Craig Bellamy, and Roque Santa-Cruz. But they have been ably backed up by less luminous players like Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong.

Actually, City's best player so far this season is easily Shay Given. The Irish international goalkeeper is a superb professional and has been on top form.

So far this season City have won four from four. And in doing so they have shown that they are capable of producing some exciting football. In their opening fixtures they struggled past Blackburn and Wolves before beating Portsmouth easily. Last week they claimed their biggest scalp to date when they beat Arsenal 4-2.

The first team squad have been strengthened significantly, and there is strength in depth there that has not been seen since the late '60s.

Perhaps City's greatest achievement was in winning an incredibly tough league in 1968. In a tight run in, Joe Mercer's team held off Matt Busby's Manchester United to claim the title by two points. Bill Shankley's Liverpool finished third while Don Revie's Leeds were fourth.

But just as City were celebrating the fact that they were league champions, Manchester United went and won the European Cup, and became the first English club to do so.

All the media attention was switched back to the red side of Manchester, and City celebrated their famous win alone.

The 11 years between 1965 and 1976 was Manchester City's most trophy-laden period. They won every domestic trophy available and claimed the European Cup Winners Cup in 1970.

Those 11 years were short lived and have stuck in the back of every City fan's mind as the once great club moved up and down the tiers of English football.

To rub salt into those wounds, bitter rivals United have become one of the most powerful clubs in the world.

Always part of the English elite, over the last 17 years United have become one of the most popular and wealthy clubs in the world.

The club that Alex Ferguson took charge of in 1986 were almost dead on their feet, and he has helped build the club into behemoth they are today.

Somewhat ironically, it is now United's blueprint that City are striving in emulate.

But as with every empire, there is a team at its centre.

Currently, United are chasing their 19th league title, and are hoping to become the first club in English football history to win four league titles in a row.

Their strength in depth is unmatched by almost every other football club and they can boast a first team squad made almost entirely of full internationals.

Alex Ferguson's teams are first and foremost built on a superb work ethic where every player puts in 100 percent in every game, none encapsulate this more than the workaholic Wayne Rooney.

They have become synonymous with all that is good about the EPL. They are well known around the world, and have the largest support base of any English club worldwide.

On the field, their team ethic is backed up by a will to win that is second to none and over the years they have played some of the most exciting football ever seen in England or anywhere else.

In short, Manchester United have become the benchmark for all who choose to follow them in the EPL.

Manchester City have the money and the means to challenge for the league title over the next decade, but they will not have it all their own way.

No one team has a divine right to win the league, and for all of Mark Hughes' extravagant spending they are still some distance from challenging for the title this year.

One thing that City don't have is infinite time to win the league.

Currently they have spent a huge amount to become perhaps the fifth best team in the league. And they will have to spend almost that again if they are to bring the title to the Eastlands.

However, UEFA's new rules are threatening to City's future more than most other teams in their position.

Under these rules, clubs will only be able to spend a percentage of their turnover on wages and transfers, currently City are not bringing in enough monies to justify their spending or to satisfy UEFA.

The City of Manchester stadium is a key component for the club's future strategy. Unfortunately at 47,000 capacity, it is too small to generate the kind of funds that City would need to challenge the likes of United, Chelsea, or Arsenal. And Liverpool can command huge income streams because they have the largest fan base of any English club in Europe.

To cut a long story short, City need to but the stadium from Manchester council and then extend the capacity to something of at least 60,000 to 70,000.

One thing that City do have in their favour is that UEFA's new ruling does not come into force until 2012, so in effect City have another four transfer windows to strengthen their team to challenge for the league and to become one of the establishment at the expense of in most probability either Liverpool or Arsenal.

There is a long, arduous road ahead of City and Mark Hughes, but it must be traversed in record time with record spending.

And to do so, City will not only have to emulate their city rivals, they will have to become...United...

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