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The season ahead

Roberto Mancini surveys his new signings ahead of the new season. (Picture from Getty Images)
Roberto Mancini surveys his new signings ahead of the new season. (Picture from Getty Images)

If that day back in September 2008 brought dizzy levels of anticipation unlikely to be matched again, that initial buzz of basking in a post-takeover frenzy has now given way to expectation.

Two years on from the takeover and fans have been accustomed to the money and elevated status. The progress that has been made has been swift, but by and large tempered with a realism that success cannot be achieved overnight. You do now though get the sense that this is the season where things are expected to happen - Champions League qualification, the end of the long wait for a trophy, perhaps even the title itself.

Although dismissed in December of last year, Mark Hughes oversaw initial changes at the club - ridding some of the unwanted elements of the Sven-Goran Eriksson era to establish a new mentality and usher in a new order. Big money signings arrived and despite talk of top six expectations, the board sensed the top four was there for the taking and Hughes was sacrificed.

Roberto Mancini arrived and with little time to bring in reinforcements tried to steer the good ship MCFC to the promised land. It couldn't quite be achieved, and a fifth placed finish along with a Cup semi-final defeat was a case of so near, yet so far as the season ended on a disappointing note.

Mancini was quickly confirmed as the man for the future though, and the summer has seen him add further riches with the arrival of Jerome Boateng, David Silva, Aleksandar Kolarov and Yaya Toure's raising the stakes along with Mario Balotelli and James Milner's on/off deals perhaps to be concluded before the month is out. All of the arrivals will surely be automatic selections and will all strengthen areas of weakness from 2009/10.

The squad Mancini now has at his disposal is the strongest in the clubs history, and perhaps the deepest in the Premier League at it stands. That of course is no precursor to success of course, but no other side in the league made as many strides over the summer. The Italian now has two players for every possession and will quickly be tasked with gelling a side that can navigate a tricky set of fixtures to be amongst the front runners after the opening stretch.

The more you stand to gain though, the more you stand to lose.

The stakes have never been as high for the club before, and there has to be success this season. And in the modern era, success will (rightly or wrongly) be judged on a top four finish and entry to the Champions League playground rather than the hoisting of a trophy. If, heading to the final stages of the season, the club are chasing a top four spot and in the running in one or more competitions, you can bet your life which one Mancini will fix his glare upon.

For him, it is top four or bust. After finishing just three points off fourth spot last season, investing heavily once again was done with designs of standing still. Mancini was, quite rightly, retained after last seasons fifth placed finish but he will know from the circumstances of his own hiring that patience will not be finite. The board are by no means prone to rash decisions but they want to see tangible reward from their investment.

To that end the squad now really does have a quality feel to it. The continental additions being a marked change from the policy of Mark Hughes whereby he sought to build a spine of strong, Premier League experience. Mancini now has his team.

There will no doubt be every attempt to add players between now and the closing of the transfer window, but for all the improvements to the squad, it still looks a top class central defender and genuine goalscorer (oh for Edin Dzeko) short.

The defence perhaps holds the most concern though with the central pairing not established and familiar problems with concentration plaguing the side during pre-season. Despite the riches in attack, defence is often the cornerstone to a tilt at the title and this is an area must get right.

Mancini will also have to deal with the disaffected and frustrated elements of the squad. No player will want to miss out and there will be some unhappy players knocking on his door.

There hasn't been much title talk taking place and perhaps with good reason. The club is no doubt on the ascent, but both Chelsea and United (despite standing still over the summer) still possess that bit extra, a touch of nous and experience at this level that the club has yet to attain and City are in all likelihood a season away from being genuine challengers.

The club does now have the air of success about it - a top four side in waiting. That in itself should be enough to ensure victory over certain sides at the other end of the table who, how shall we put it, are more selective when it comes to games they target with the belief of getting something from.

The side last season proved more than capable of taking points off the sides at the top. Points taken off Chelsea, Arsenal and Aston Villa but old habits can die hard and they can ill afford to be on the wrong end of a double against United, Tottenham and Everton, not to mention foolishly dropping points in similar circumstances to those against Hull and Burnley.

The time though is most definitely now. With a Europa League campaign supplementing domestic competition there are four legitimate targets for Mancini in 2010/11. The aim of course is Champions League qualification and it will be no easy task with United, Chelsea and Arsenal ensconned and Liverpool threatening to rebound from last season horror show.

The right noises are coming out of the club though. Young, hungry and ambitious players have come on board - exactly the profile needed to build and drive a club forward and bringing with them an expectation that manifests itself on the incumbents already in the squad.

After coming so close last season, this time the extra step is taken and a top four finished is attained - an impressive enough achievement in itself, but would be topped off even further if a trophy is also raised over the course of the next ten months.