Tuesday night’s 2-0 defeat to Barcelona showcased both Manchester City’s defensive prowess and the need for Manuel Pellegrini to reinforce his back line this summer.
Pablo Zabaleta turned in a typically tenacious display, repelling wave after wave of Catalan attacks, while captain Vincent Kompany touched his imperious best.
But Martin Demichelis' rash, 53rd-minute lunge on Lionel Messi meant an early bath for Kompany’s centre-back partner and decisively turned the match. Messi converted the subsequent penalty, and Pellegrini’s game plan was torn to shreds.
To give due credit, Demichelis defended superbly up until that point, although the veteran’s form since his summer move from Atletico Madrid left the sense of an accident waiting to happen—and it happened.
Joleon Lescott was unfortunate to miss out on the starting XI having impressed during City’s weekend FA Cup win over Chelsea. But a skittish performance in possession when he came on to plug the defensive gap did much to explain Pellegrini’s ill-fated call in Demichelis’ favour.
In this context, alongside the form and the fitness issues plaguing the highly rated Matija Nastasic this term, strengthening at centre-back is a must.
City find themselves more healthily stocked at full-back. Nevertheless, injuries and Zabaleta’s sensational form have combined to stall Micah Richards’ career for almost two years.
At left-back, the competition between Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy arguably denies both men the playing time they desire.
Should either seek pastures new, Pellegrini would be left with a reasonable shopping list. The question is who should be on that list?
It is reasonable to assume Eliaquim Mangala will be Pellegrini’s No. 1 summer target. City failed in a late January bid to bring in the powerful 23-year-old from Porto, as per Jamie Jackson of The Guardian.
The Blues made their move to avoid the prospect of the close-season bidding war over a player with an asking price widely reported to be in excess of £35 million, per Jackson.
This now appears inevitable after Jackson revealed Manchester United are having the player scouted. Regardless of City’s needs, those of their neighbours might be greater in light of Nemanja Vidic’s imminent departure.
John Cross of Mirror Football claimed French champions Paris Saint-Germain are also on Mangala’s trail. This move has obvious appeal for a player at the beginning of his international career with France.
An imposing, pacey figure, Mangala started life as a left-back and looks an ideal candidate to fill City’s problem left centre-back berth alongside Kompany.
The path from the Emirates Stadium to the Etihad Stadium has become well-trodden in recent seasons.
Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Samir Nasri and Clichy have all made the switch since Sheikh Mansour’s money came pouring into east Manchester.
With the exception of Nasri, those players had fallen out of favour with Gunners boss Arsene Wenger—a situation now familiar to Thomas Vermaelen.
Arsenal’s resurgence this year has largely occurred without the influence of a man once seen as their defensive lynchpin.
Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny boast a formidable alliance and are now Wenger’s trusted centre-back duo.
Vermaelen’s form has tailed off to make him a shadow of the formidable presence that burst into the Premier League in 2009.
But the 28-year-old remains an accomplished performer who would be at ease with Pellegrini’s style of play. Additionally, bringing his international partnership with Belgium team-mate Kompany to club level could give his career the jolt it badly needs.
By bringing in Demichelis this summer, Pellegrini went down a route familiar to many managers.
At times of uncertainty, it is commonplace to turn to a trusty lieutenant of the past, as Demichelis was for Pellegrini at Malaga.
When Pellegrini was sacked to make way for Jose Mourinho the following summer, Garay slid down the pecking order. However, the Argentine centre-half has put his career back on track in over 2.5 excellent seasons with Benfica.
Garay’s time at the Estadio da Luz appears set to come to an end. Manchester United are long-time admirers, despite the player claiming David Moyes pulled the plug on a summer move, per Cross (h/t Ben Blackmore of B/R).
Zenit St. Petersburg’s ongoing pursuit of Garay may still come to fruition before the Russian transfer window closes at the end of February, as reported by Sky Sports' Francisco Acedo. If not, an interesting summer is in store, as Portuguese paper O Jogo suggests (via the Mail Online).
A reunion with Pellegrini may appeal to the 27-year-old who is strong in the air and equally adept at linking play with the midfield. City’s Argentine contingent of Sergio Aguero, Zabaleta and Demichelis could also play a persuasive role, along with Garay’s former Benfica colleague Javi Garcia.
Normally, the left-backs have to do battle for a solitary spot in the City line-up, However, their manager shrewdly opted for extra insurance against Barcelona's twin attacking threat of Dani Alves and Alexis Sanchez.
Both men offer different qualities to their manager. Clichy produces the more assured defensive work and possesses greater pace. Kolarov is at his best rampaging into opposition territory and carries a set-piece threat courtesy of his sledgehammer left foot.
Combine the two and you would have the perfect full-back, and Pellegrini might just be greedy enough to seek out such a player.
One of the hottest prospects in Britain, Shaw is the current standard-bearer for the technical excellence of Saints’ youth academy. The production line has spawned Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, making it renowned across the football world.
As such, there is little doubt City would be purchasing a high-quality player, although any transfer fee is likely to be astronomical.
Manchester United and Chelsea were at the forefront of speculation swirling around Shaw last month, as per Charles Reynolds of The Independent. Ashley Cole’s lack of game time with the latter makes Shaw a dark horse for a place at this summer’s World Cup with England, something that would only see his value rise further.
A more realistic left-back target would be Sevilla’s Spain international Alberto Moreno.
Transfer relations between the La Liga club and City are firmly established after Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo moved to Eastlands last summer.
Moreno might be the next player to benefit from that link following a sensational year.
After displacing Fernando Navarro as Sevilla’s first-choice on the left side of defence, he made his international debut in October.
As Nacho Monreal struggles for form and a regular starting spot at Arsenal, Moreno is closing in on a World Cup place as Jordi Alba’s understudy.
A solid defender, the 21-year-old excites as a pacey attacking threat and would be one with Pellegrini’s expansive strategy.
According to WhoScored.com, Moreno averages 1.9 dribbles per home league match. He demonstrated an eye for goal by opening the scoring versus Barcelona earlier this month.
Kolarov and Clichy, both signed by Roberto Mancini, leave City very well-stocked at left-back. If Pellegrini wants to make his mark on the squad in that position, he could do worse than turn to Moreno.