(Pep Guardiola photo courtesy Sport 360 via PA Sport)
What few weaknesses Manchester City may have had were addressed in their tried and true fashion – spending money after targeting who they felt were the right players to address those issues.
Now looking to join their eternal rivals as the only teams to “three-peat” as Premier League champions, the Cityzens begin another season of sky-high expectations Saturday at London Stadium against West Ham United and former boss Manuel Pellegrini.
(Potential Starting XIs)
While Pep Guardiola’s side finished with only two points less than their record-setting centurion campaign of 2017-18, claiming the Premier League trophy again last term was definitely one to savour more. Manchester City held off Liverpool by one point in a gripping title race, winning their final 14 league matches while the Reds won their final nine.
The title was part of a domestic treble for Man City, who also won the Carabao Cup and FA Cup trophies. While the Champions League was again out of reach – the Cityzens fell to Tottenham Hotspur in the quarterfinals – Guardiola insists the European trophy remains secondary on his priority list to becoming the first team to win three consecutive Premier League titles since Manchester United turned the trick from 2007-09 to send off Sir Alex Ferguson in style.
“I would sign right now to do what we did last season again,” Guardiola said before he collected his second Community Shield trophy with a victory over Liverpool in penalty kicks Sunday at Wembley after teams played to a 1-1 draw. “Not winning the Champions League and (getting) four titles again. I want to be happy during 11 months. It makes me happy, the Premier League. When I win, the days after I am happier. I go to the restaurants better, I feel better, I work better with my players. That’s what it gives me.
“Am I going to wait until February to play seven games with everything on the colour black? From my point of view, it’s too risky. You have to handle it. To maintain the health of the team, the focus in the Premier League. The Premier League always is the most important thing, the local competition because it is every weekend.”
City handled just about everything thrown their way, and this season’s edition has the potential to be two-deep at every position with a first-team international player. The deep pockets of owner and Shiekh Mansour again played a role in the summer transfer window, but the signings Guardiola and City’s front office made also had an eye on future success.
The key acquisition was the club-record £63 million signing of Rodri from Atletico Madrid, with the 23-year-old defensive midfielder slotted to be the heir apparent to Fernandinho as the shield to the back line. The Spain international played the full 90 minutes in the Community Shield and earned effusive praise from Guardiola for stepping right in against the six-times European champions.
“The first official game to fight the champions of Europe the way they press and jump, how clever you have to be and the way you have to run,” Guardiola told the Manchester Evening News. “So, it was a test, he did an incredible game offensively and defensively fighting with the guys so it was good.”
City’s other big signing did not take place until late in the transfer window as right back Joao Cancelo arrived from Juventus in exchange for Danilo and a net spend of £26 million after agreeing to a £60 million move for the Portugal international. The 25-year-old Cancelo quickly put pen to paper on a deal through 2025 and gives Guardiola a wide back who can push forward.
Cancelo, though, may start the season on the opposite side if Guardiola prefers him to holdover Oleksandr Zinchenko as Benjamin Mendy continues to recover from a knee injury with Kyle Walker the current incumbent on the right side. City also has the option of pushing Zinchenko up to his regular midfield role after signing Angelino from PSV Eindhoven.
(Leroy Sane photo courtesy 90Min)
One area were City’s depth will be tested, however, is in attack with the expected long-term injury absence of Leroy Sane. Sane, who was reportedly close to leaving for Bayern Munich, ruptured an ACL in the Community Shield and will undergo surgery. Despite totaling 16 goals and 16 assists, the Germany international was often second choice behind Bernando Silva and Riyad Mahrez on the left flank.
City got stronger in the offseason with two players returning from injury-plagued seasons – midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and No. 2 keeper Claudio Bravo. De Bruyne, who missed extended periods of play at three different points last season with knee and hamstring injuries, was on the Premier League Team of the Year and Premier League Playmaker of the Year in 2018, while Bravo returns to back up Ederson after missing all of last term with a torn Achilles.
Roberto Mancini can recall the days of blank-cheque spending while he was in charge of City as they began their overhaul to their current point of English dominance, but his current bosses in east London – David Sullivan and David Gold – have not been shy about backing the Chilean financially either.
West Ham finished in the top half of the table on 52 points, their best showing since placing seventh in 2015-16. The Irons may have had a case of addition by subtraction up front as wantaway striker Marko Arnautovic finally got his deal with a Chinese team and signed with SIPG and veteran Andy Carroll moved on a free transfer to Newcastle.
The Irons are hoping their record £45 million summer signing Sebastien Haller will hit the ground running up front. The 25-year-old Haller – an inviting target at 6-foot-3 – enjoyed a breakout season with Eintracht Frankfurt, totaling 15 goals and nine assists in league play while scoring another five goals in nine Europa League matches.
(Sebastien Haller photo courtesy Premier League official website)
“Sebastien is a very good player, he is very strong and he has very good technique and I hope he is going to score a lot of goals for us,” defender and Haller’s France U-21 teammate Issa Diop told the club’s official website. “I played alongside him for France U21s and we had a few games together and also many training sessions, so I know how difficult he is to challenge because he is very tall and very powerful.”
Unlike the start of last term, Pellegrini is not scrambling to put together a starting XI pulled from various late moves in the summer transfer window. Diop and Fabian Balbuena should pair in central defence, while there is plenty of quality in attack as Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini should flank newcomer Pablo Fornals in West Ham’s 4-2-3-1 set-up.
The defensive midfield tandem also offers plenty of promise in burgeoning star Declan Rice and veteran Jack Wilshire. Top-choice keeper Lukasz Fabianski is expected to play after missing the last two preseason friendlies, but Pellegrini is also expecting his team not to back down against his former side.
“We know that we have a tough game against Manchester City, but we are confident that we will not play with fear just because we’re playing the champions,” he said Thursday. “What I want to see is for us to start the season the way we finished the last one.
We went to Tottenham playing away – a team who were fighting for the title and the Champions League – and we played in the way that I wanted us to. If we can retain that style, I hope that we can have good results.”
City did the double last term in extending their win streak over West Ham to seven in all competitions and stormed to a 4-0 victory in London as Sane, David Silva, and Raheem Sterling all scored in the first 34 minutes. The Irons are 2-4-16 in their last 22 overall matchups against the Cityzens, including 1-3-7 in the last 11 in London.
ODDS and ENDS
Per Ladbrokes, the Cityzens are prohibitive favourites with 1/4 odds to take all three points, with West Ham 11/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline. There are 19/4 odds on the teams splitting points in London.
Oddsmakers rate City’s defence, offering 4/5 odds for only one team to score compared to 10/11 odds on both teams finding the back of the net. They also have confidence in the champions’ attack even without Sane, offering 4/9 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 6/4 odds being held under that benchmark.
Sterling and Aguero lead a parade of City players for first-goal scorer options at 3/1, followed by: Gabriel Jesus (7/2), Mahrez (5/1), the Silvas Bernardo (11/2) and David (13/2) and De Bruyne and Phil Foden (13/2). New boy Haller is West Ham’s top option at 17/2, while veteran Irons forward Chicharito rates 9/1.
Aguero and Sterling are better than even money odds to score at 5/6, with Jesus lurking just below that line at 11/10. Mahrez checks in at 13/8, while Bernando Silva is a 9/5 pick, followed by 2/1 choices De Bruyne and David Silva. Rodri offers a 9/2 return to score in his Premier League debut for the Cityzens.
Haller is an 11/4 pick to open his account for Pellegrini’s side, and Felipe Anderson is a 4/1 option. Michail Antonio is a 9/2 pick for the Irons, and Chicharito rates 14/5.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: West Ham United 1, Manchester City 4.
PREDICTED HALFTIME SCORE: West Ham United 0, Manchester City 2.
PREDICTED FIRST GOAL-SCORER: Bernardo Silva