Monday, August 11, 2008

A look ahead to the season

If we headed into the 2007/08 season with a large degree of uncertainty around the club following the arrival of a new owner, manager and squad, then the eve of the 2008/09 season is surrounded by scenes of chaos.

An owner on the run, reported problems with the finances and players being sold behind the managers back are all things that have been encountered over the past week, with reported armageddon just around the corner.

It wasn't expected to be this way though given that in comparison to last summer, the club was looking as stable and in as strong a position as most of us can surely remember.

The furore over the sacking of Sven had subsided, and despite some protest the overwhelming majority of support was behind Mark Hughes, who had done a steady job so far in assembling and shaping his backroom team, getting to grips with the squad and slowly changing some of the culture aspects that he was not impressed with from the previous regime.

Jo arrived for £18 million, there was a (serious, if we are led to be believed) bid for Ronaldinho, Tal Ben Haim cam in from Chelsea and Hughes was looking to add one or two more pieces ahead of the Premier League kick off.

Much of that is now up in the air which is a tremendous shame as despite our rivals perhaps spending more than ourselves, I feel we are in a great position to be able to kick on and improve upon last season's largely impressive showing.

The arrival of Mark Hughes followed the appointment of Garry Cook to the club. Cook came in with a strong reputation in the business world on the back of his career at Nike, and it is clear he is expected to really take the club forward off the pitch (particularly to the world wide market).

His appointment of course saw the departure of Alastair Mackintosh - a move which I'm sure too many didn't lament, but also saw John Wardle step down from the board, a move which is tinged with regret given the depth of his feeling for the club.

I've been impressed with Hughes so far. He has had a fairly understated approach as he gets to grips with the club (particularly the size) following his arrival from Blackburn. Like Sven, he appears impressed with the talent at his disposal, and has talked up the Academy prospects in glowing terms. He has brought in his own trusted backroom staff in Mark Bowen, Eddie Niedzwecki and Kevin Hitchcock and where Sven perhaps fell down in certain areas, Hughes appears more canny and is far more familiar with the inner workings of the Premier League.

Despite the off field issues that we are currently facing (and things could conceivably get a whole lot worse in the near future), what we can be positive about is the current state of the squad which is undoubtedly in a far healthier position than this time a year ago.

Hughes has culled some of the deadwood (none of which will be missed) and the two additions (Jo and Tal Ben Haim) will undoubtedly improve the squad, but equally positive is the extra year that the likes of Hart, Onouha, Richards, Johnson, Ireland, Sturridge and Evans have under their belts.

Whilst we are perhaps a veteran keeper light following the departure of Andreas Isaksson, Joe Hart has truly emerged as the undisputed number 1 during 2007/08 - a season in which he became the heir apparant to David James in the England squad and impressed all observers and has a long future ahead of him. Kaspar Schmeichel is an able deputy, but his desire for first team football may force a move sooner rather than later so Hughes will undoubtedly be casting an eye around for a futher back up keeper to bring in.

Defence has been our strong point (and saving grace on many occasions) over the past few seasons, and with the addition of Tal Ben Haim we are in an even stronger position, given that Richard Dunne has penned a new contract and Vedran Corluka (unless there is another twist) is to remain at the club.

Ben Haim looked impressive against Milan on Saturday, and I think that despite the success of the Richards-Dunne axis last season, he will partner Dunne sooner rather than later - although given how frail we appeared last season when Dunne and Richards were out, additional cover was vital.

The problem left back spot has not been addressed as yet however, and neither Ball or Garrido are an ideal long term answer. Ball, primarily a defensive player, does not offer much in the way of going forward whilst Garrido is the complete opposite in that positionally he is poor defensively but I would be tempted to begin the season with him for the way he could potentially link with Petrov on the left hand side, although I do expect Hughes to 'play safe' and opt for the more steady presence of Ball.

The midfield area does currently throw up a number of condundrums, and is an area I'm certain Hughes is desperate to reinforce - both centrally and on the right hand side. Centrally, we have the trio of Hamman, Gelson and Johnson who I'm sure will rotate with each other early on but (as like most sides) we do lack a genuine dominant midfielder - think Michael Essien or Patrick Vieira in his prime, and the danger is without one of these, we can get overrun against sides who possess genuine quality, pace and power in that area.

On the left hand side we are well set with Martin Petrov likely to be the fulcrum for much of our attacking forarys, and he really will be a threat for opposing sides this season. A concern is with his potential workload given the number of competitions we are involved in, and Hughes will have to be careful not to burn him out too early on in the campaign.

There are plenty of candidates for the right hand side, but all still leave plenty of questions unanswered, and this is an area Hughes will also continue to look at. Elano has featured most prominently during pre-season, and will be an effective player wherever he features, but he does appear marginalised when out on the right and does operate most effeciently when tucked in behind the striker(s), but this would appeat to go against how Hughes is looking to line the side up.

Ditto to a degree for Stephen Ireland, who showed impressive flashes last season and undoubtedly progressed, but arguably turned in his best displays when deputising for Elano in that more advanced position. Like Corluka, speculation has raged with regards to his future, and I feel it would be a shame to cut ties with him at this stage of his career with so much potential ahead.

Youngsters Kelvin Etuhu and Vladimir Weiss are expected to show progress throughout this season and should get some exposure to the first team set up.

Remember a time when there was a dearth of quality strikers at the club? Now, the exact opposite is the case. Even allowing for the departures of Corradi, Dickov, Mpenza and Samaras, we are still well served with both quality and potential in the ranks.

The return of Bojinov has been a real boost this summer and he has probably played himself into a starting position with his displays. Vassell - despite his limitations in terms of goals, is a worker and has shown an ability to link well with Bojinov so far. Benjani showed glimpses following his signing from Portsmouth in the January transfer window and will feature regularly.

With Jo's absence at the Olympics, this has allowed Daniel Sturridge and Ched Evans to gain more exposure, with Hughes clearly impressed both players (perhaps moreso Sturridge) earmarked for that impact role from the bench.

The one concern could be early on, with Jo absent and Vassell possibly missing through injury and if Hughes does not want to throw Evans and/or Sturridge in so early, it may mean a reprieve for Rolando Bianchi who appears very much on the fringes, with all parties perhaps hoping for a suitable bid from a Serie A side to put an end to a move that has not panned out as hoped.

The season of course has commenced already from a competitive standpoint, with progress made so far in the UEFA Cup qualifiers, which augmented with the friendlies, has provided us with a good test during pre-season.

Should we progress as hoped to the group stages of the UEFA Cup, it will of course mean a large number of games this season and we do have to guard against struggling to juggle everything as many sides have struggled to do in previous seasons.

Our rivals for that top six finish have all added well this season, although it has been interesting that most sides have also been forced to sell to allow some of these moves to be made. The top four for me is out of reach (for now at least) and it will be the useful teams filling those positions, and I see Everton, Portsmouth, Aston Villa and Tottenham as being our chief rivals for the forthcoming campaign.

As we head into the season, on the pitch things are looking positive with what I believe to be our best squad for some time, supported by a proven manager who is clearly ambitious and will demand success. The worry of course is that over the past week off the field incidents have hit the headlines, even going so far as to suggest impending financial meltdown - which might not be too fanciful a suggestion.

An owner with an outstanding arrest warrant is at best an embarrasment and severe distraction, and at worst a precursor to all sorts of instability for the club's present and future. All Thaksin has confirmed so far is that he has no intention of selling the club, but now he in self imposed exile, will he realistically have a choice with his frozen assets well out of reach? And how will this affect the futures of both Mark Hughes and Garry Cook, both of whom gave up a significant amount to join the club?

So much of course now appears up in the air and it a case of heading into the unknown until the dust settles a little, but despite finally looking like we could be on the cusp of a degree of relative normality, the Manchester City soap opera clearly shows no sign of abating and the next nine months or so could see the club experience events that could leave even the most hardened observer shaking their head.

My predictions

Premier League - 8th
FA Cup - 5th round
Carling Cup - Quarter finals
UEFA Cup - Last sixteen
Player of the season - Martin Petrov
Top goalscorer - Valeri Bojinov

Media predictions

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