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The big City season preview

After previewing yesterday how I expect the Premiership table to look come next May, it is time to turn my hand to looking a bit more in depth at how I expect our season to go.

One thing I did notice when working out the final table was how open the Premiership is this season. Apart from the top five which looks to be a closed shop, pretty much every other side in the league must be looking at that sixth spot and thinking they have a chance. Of course every side goes into the season with optimism - having brought in new recruits and starting the season afresh, but I cannot see an obvious stand out candidate to finish sixth. Another reason for this I think is that most sides have question marks hanging over them - be it managerial or on the playing side which means they could also struggle at the wrong end as well as competing at the top end.

For me it does make for an interesting start to the season at least, as I look for sides trying to get out of the blocks quickly as once you build momentum it can take you a long way through the season. It is also imperative that you avoid getting yourself dragged into the danger zone early on as it difficult to escape once in there - as proved with Birmingham last season.

General predictions have not been overly favourable to us. Most have us coming in around lower mid-table. From the press, The Observer has us 16th, The Independent 15th and Sunday Times 14th. Elsewhere the guys at B&W&RAO tip us to finish 15th, Square Football 17th, whilst your votes also put us around mid-table.

It is clearly a big season for City. Without trying to hype it too much we are clearly at a crossroads as a club. We have now established Premiership security and are now enjoying our longest spell in the top flight for some time. Whilst financially we are by no means secure, the sale of SWP last season has clearly helped and Stuart Pearce has been aforded some flexibility in the transfer market.

There were rumblings from the terraces though towards the end of last season. The meltdown over the last third did much to contribute to this but an air of apathy was evident as fans became fully aware that we have probably shed the 'rollercoaster' tag and we have become in some ways one of the Premiership 'also rans' - a side who at best will be challenging for a top eight spot and a decent cup run. This resulted in crowds falling to around the 40,000 mark on occasion and it may take a good start for attendances to pick up again.

I think also it is a big season for Pearce. From being touted as a favourite for the England job his stock fell and it will be a big test of his character and more importantly his coaching and motivational ability. I have read in some circles that a bad run upto Christmas could put his job in danger but I view that as far too premature and would be a major step backwards from the club if that were to happen.

Pearce has made some backroom changes since last season and perhaps the important one will see Steve Wigley assume more of a role at first team level, after a season with the reserves and Academy - experience that will surely prove vital with the crop of youngsters coming through.

Personnel wise, I don't think you can argue with what Pearce has achieved over the summer and if anything has brought in players who undoubtedly make the squad a lot stronger than it was this time last year.

The initial disappointment at losing James has given way to a little realism and the arrival of Isaksson looks to be a plus, with Pearce also doing well in not annointing him the outright number 1 - which should keep him on his toes. Hatem Trabelsi is a proven international and performer at the top level and will be a key component in the attacking game. This may also allow either/both of Onouha and Richards to move into the centre if Distin does leave.
Midfield was a concern last season with both a lack of depth of quality so the arrival of Dabo and particularly Hamman should address this, although the left hand side is still a concern heading into the season. Up front, Pearce now has plenty of options and bringing in Dickov and Corradi sees a different style of forward than we had on the books.

Of the departures, I again think Pearce has done well. As I've said before, to recoup £1.5 million for Croft, Wright-Phillips and Flood is good business and none were expected to make an impact this season if they had remained. The sale of James was an enforced one, but he recouped a sizeable fee for a player of that age and has more than addressed the issue of a replacement. In addition he has also cleared the decks to some extent with both fringe and younger players departing the club to free up salary to be spent elsewhere.

Squad wise, as I've mentioned I think we are in far better shape than twelve months ago. In goal, we are as stocked as at any time in recent memory with an experienced international with his best years ahead as the probable number 1, with a fit again Nicky Weaver pushing him hard. In the system are also two bright prospects in Kaspar Schmeichel and Joe Hart, with Schmeichel expected to see some action elsewhere throughout the season.

Defensively, for this season a lot depends on Sylvain Distin. Whilst Nedum Onuoha and Micah Richards are going to be dominant players in the future, it may be too early for them to assume the responsibility of a full season in the centre and may place too much pressure on Richard Dunne - who I think will shine in the captains role. Danny Mills, Stephen Jordan or Ben Thatcher could fill in but it would be a case of muddling through rather than filling Distin's position with any conviction. It may still be that Distin stays and we will then have a full season from a player who I think has been outstanding during his time at the club and who will leave a big hole if he does depart. At full back, on the right we are well stocked with Hatem Trabelsi looking a good signing, with Mills and Sun Jihai as experienced back-up with Richards and Onouha also capable of playing there. On the left, it is not quite as stocked with Thatcher and Jordan battling it out - with Jordan expected to have the edge.

We did not ship a lot of goals last season and it was rare that we suffered more than a one-goal defeat, but there is still the propensity to lose stupid goals. Early in the season there is also the worry of trying to 'knit' the unit (as well as a 'keeper) together.

Midfield was the problem area for much of last season, particularly the second half when Joey Barton's transfer demand saw him lose focus. Hopefully now a new deal is signed he will kick on and show the form he is surely capable of. With the arrivals of Didi Hamman and Ousmane Dabo, this should give Barton licence to advance more (something Pearce has been keen on during pre-season) and support the attack. Dabo is a solid signing, whilst Hamman will add the quality that he has shown at Liverpool the past few seasons. Holdovers from last year who will compete are Stephen Ireland and Claudio Reyna. Reyna may not have too much time left at City and has proved too injury prone and will not be an automatic first choice. Ireland has potential and looked good in flashes but needs to show more consistency when he does get a chance.

Out wide are problem areas for me. Last season saw a fully fit Trevor Sinclair display his best form for the club but when he struggling with injury looks half the player, and we don't have any genuine cover to compete. The left is the big problem. Both last seasons loan players - Kiki Musampa and Albert Riera are no more, which leaves a big hole. Georgios Samaras, Ishmael Miller and Antoine Sibierski appear to be the contenders but none are genuine players for that position and it is a case of square pegs in round holes.

Pearce is running out of time to fill that position, but overall the midfield does look stronger in quality and depth than last season and will hopefully see us dominate games against lesser sides.
In attack, it is a case of perm any two from five. Pearce added former player Paul Dickov and Bernardo Corradi to the squad over the summer and gives himself yet more options. Corradi - somewhat a poor mans Luca Toni, is a strong player who should relish the physical nature of the Premiership, whilst Dickov maybe more an impact player, brought on from the bench. Andrew Cole is edging back to full fitness and his presence was badly missed last season, particularly by Darius Vassell who had struck up a good partnership but without Cole and suffering from hernia problems struggled late on. Georgios Samaras was brought in at the Janaury window for a sizeable fee and in patches showed quality and added goals, and he will look to kick on this season.

With the options Pearce has up front, it maybe tempting to play a 4-3-3 at times - with Samaras and Vassell in wider positions, augmenting Cole or Corradi from wide. This could be a bold move, but may risk pushing them too far out of the game yet if it gels could be an explosive system to play - mainly at home.

At least it does now give Pearce options and depth to cover the inevitable injuries, but a worry could be the lack of a 'genuine' goal scorer amongst them. In the reserves, both Kelvin Etuhu and Daniel Sturridge will look to develop and may even get a chance at some stage this season.

Last season promised much, but ultimately delivered little in end reward. There is a chance to kick on this season and with the additions made to the squad much is expected. Fans are yet again hopeful, and indeed expectant of a good season but this has been tempered with a bigger dose of realism than in past campaigns when hype and expectation were far more easily generatd (particularly under Kevin Keegan).

It will be a big test, but the noises coming from the squad are positive and I feel that this squad can equip themselves with the majority in the Premiership, but ultimately feel that in typical-City style, we could be our own worst enemy.