Roberto Mancini's side has made an uncertain start in defence of the Premier League title.
Manchester City’s stutter-start to the season looked to be over with a dominant performance against a previously unbeaten Sunderland side. This has led many to speculate that the game will mark the point where City’s English Premier League title defence begins in earnest.
They looked confident in possession and played with the swagger of reigning champions. The clean sheet undoubtedly helped, too, but has the inconsistency of the early season really been banished for good?
Looking at their year so far, there are a few things that jump out as being beneficial to City’s quest to retain the title.
Micah Richards and James Milner were part of an impressive English performance in the win over Sunderland.
Alongside David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotellli and Carlos Tevez, names such as Micah Richards, Jolean Lescott and James Milner get a little lost.
However, the Sunderland game showed that the English contingent is very much a key factor of Roberto Mancini’s team.
With John Terry now departed from the England picture, Richards turned in a dominant performance against Sunderland to state his case for the job.
Although he removed his name from the stand-by squad for Euro 2012, his lack of international experience is baffling, especially when you consider how versatile he is.
Richards played his part in City’s first clean sheet of the season, looking like he hadn’t missed a game in defence, as well as getting forward to attack Sunderland. There is a case to be made that he perhaps attacked a little too frequently, but basing that on the one game is a little unfair.
Lescott has only started three out of the last six matches, but Mancini insists this is only down to squad rotation. The fact that City kept the clean sheet with Richards and Lescott both on the field isn’t a coincidence, despite Aleksandar Kolarov’s impressive performance.
Behind the two defenders is, of course, Joe Hart, who has been City’s best player on a number of occasions, getting them results in the Premier League and Champions League that they perhaps didn’t deserve.
Milner scored one of City’s three goals at the weekend, but he and Gareth Barry protected the back four admirably, contributing to the excellent defensive display from the Sky Blues.
Although the sheer depth of Mancini’s squad means that sacrifices are made with team selection every week, the performance of the English players last week will have given him a great deal of comfort.
They offer a reliable option at the very least, unafraid to grind out victories against teams they should be beating.
Every team is capable of raising their game against the best sides, but the champions are the teams that consistently fight through the scrappy games and come away with wins.
Balotelli has struggled to find form in the Premier League this year.
Mario Balotelli walking straight to the tunnel after his substitution can be blamed on both petulance and frustration.
Balotelli thinks very highly of himself, so his poor performance for 55 minutes last week will have annoyed him. He expects more, and with good reason.
He has immeasurable talent, but still doesn’t seem to understand that if he plays badly he will be substituted. Mancini’s decision to bring on Aguero was vindicated almost immediately when the Argentinian linked up with Tevez and finished in style.
Aguero continued to show his understanding with Tevez and City’s attack looked genuinely lifted as soon as he came on.
The problem with Balotelli is that he lets everyone know of his frustration, which rubs off on his teammates. Mancini may have a huge amount of patience with him, but it’s not everlasting.
At some point, Balotelli will have exhausted all his sympathy and that will spell the end of his City career.
There are some people who believe that should be sooner rather than later, especially considering he looked to have turned a corner during Euro 2012. That sort of consistency is maddeningly just out of reach for him, which is as much a problem for Mancini as for the striker.
It’s not time for Balotelli to leave the Etihad, but it is time that he understood his role within the team. He has to know that he won’t start every game, just as he has to know that he won’t finish every game.
He may think he is the best player on the pitch at all times, but that has to be demonstrated in his results. That means goals, and at the moment he isn’t delivering.
His last Premier League goal was in March, so he has no right to so openly condemn his substitution. It may simply be frustration with himself, but walking straight down the tunnel doesn’t immediately suggest that.
Along with Aguero, Edin Dzeko has also impressed after coming on as a substitute, but those good performances seem to desert him when he starts.
Dzeko is best used within this role, as his game isn’t suited to linking up with Samir Nasri, Aguero nor Tevez. He drifts in and out of the game and often looks at odds with City’s crisp play.
What Dzeko does best is change the tempo of the game, usually by replacing either Tevez or Aguero. This is the best way to score quick goals as the defence doesn’t have time to adjust to Dzeko as he enters the fray.
Although he would no doubt want to start, his propensity to score quick goals means he is ideally suited to his current role.
Aguero and Tevez are the proven performers of this year, and deserve to keep their place in the starting lineup, whereas Dzeko is already in an impact-player position that suits his style.
The rumours about signing Falcao won't go away, but Dzeko keeps scoring goals, which is all that matters.
Of course, that leaves Balotelli. He is a huge asset to the team, but until he starts finding the net again in the EPL, City can’t afford to keep starting him.
The Champions League is the biggest tournament in club football, but it cannot be courted at the expense of everything else.
It’s happened a lot over the years. A team wins the Premier League to every fan’s delight. The next target is the Champions League, obviously. However, playing in Europe takes a completely different approach and success doesn’t come easily.
European teams play a different style of football so it’s impossible to expect EPL form to continue through into the Champions League. English teams often find themselves torn apart on the counter when they face European competition, or worn down by a midfield that is completely unwilling to relinquish the ball.
This is something that the English national team faces when they enter tournaments, often made to look disorganised and clumsy as opponents pass straight through the defence.
Winning the Champions League can become the sole focus of a manager or owner, to the extent that the EPL gets forgotten, or at the very least, becomes less important.
The problem arises when the defending EPL champions then go out of the Champions League, suddenly realising that they are off pace for the home title as well.
Leeds United memorably got to the semifinals of the Champions League in 2001, only to go into financial meltdown and obscurity when they missed out on qualification the following year.
Manchester City are new to the CL and failed to progress past the group stages last year, which will have irked the team’s owners after the amount money that has been spent.
This is a dangerous thing to say so early on, especially as City are in the Group of Death this year with Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax. They were outplayed against Dortmund, with only Joe Hart and a dubious penalty coming to their rescue, and they threw away a lead with minutes remaining against Madrid.
These aren’t the performances of CL contenders, and City will lose everything if they throw all their efforts into progressing through the European competition. A season with a league title is at least equalling the efforts of last year, despite Milner’s words.
That will still be considered a success, whereas failure to retain the EPL title or make it through the Champions League group stages constitutes a step back.
Billionaire owners are not interested in steps back, so Mancini and his team would do well to remember the Premier League as they take tentative steps towards European glory.