Manchester City’s summer spending has seen them strengthen their title-winning options even further. Areas that were somewhat light have been bolstered, and they look capable of winning more trophies under Manuel Pellegrini this term.
One of the more intriguing battles is the race to be City’s No. 1. For too long, Joe Hart has remained relatively unchallenged as City’s first-choice goalkeeper, but the arrival of Willy Caballero, a man Pellegrini knows and trusts from their time together at Malaga, changes that in an instant.
Hart had a difficult start to the last campaign. Errors against Cardiff, Villa and Chelsea were costly and threatened City’s involvement in the title race. He was eventually dropped and returned in far better shape, but his mistakes were seemingly enough to make Pellegrini unsure of his ability to be a consistent, world-class goalkeeper.
Indeed, Hart would have found himself confined to the sideline much sooner had there been a better replacement in the City squad. Costel Pantilimon, who has since been released to join Sunderland, never once filled onlookers with confidence, and his six-week stay in the first team was always going to be temporary.
And it’s that lack of competition—something Hart also faces at the international level—that has surely been, in part at least, responsible for the England man’s downturn in form. Even now, with his renewed focus after being dropped, he is no longer performing at the level he was in 2011/12.
It seems likely, though, Hart will start the season in pole position. He is in possession of the shirt after a solid end to the last campaign which ended with City winning the title in dramatic circumstances. Hart played a vital role in that success, and Pellegrini, who is known for the careful way he treats his players, will be mindful of that.
But he now has a fight on his hands.
As reported by Jamie Jackson of The Guardian, when asked about Hart’s grip on the No. 1 spot, Pellegrini said: "All the 22 players we have in our squad must demonstrate who is number one in all the positions. Joe finished last season playing very well. We will see next Sunday, which players start for Newcastle."
What the Chilean now knows for sure is that any repeat of Hart’s disastrous early season showing from 12 months ago won’t be tolerated now that Caballero is an option. The Argentine played every minute of Malaga’s La Liga season last year, and only the promise of a fair fight for the No. 1 position would have convinced him to up sticks and join his former boss in England.
There must have been some guarantees, and Caballero’s latest comments suggest he wants more than a back-up role:
My ambition is to fight for the position and to be there when the manager needs me.
I feel good. It was an important match for me. I have a chance to play. I am happy for this, not for the score. I will train for the next opportunity.
Yes, I want to be number one. I will train for this weekend for the next decision to see who starts [then]. Both of us will train for that chance. But I came to fight for the No1 spot.
City’s tough start means hitting their best form immediately is imperative. An away day at Newcastle is followed by home games with Liverpool and Stoke, before a trip to the Emirates to play Arsenal and a visit of Chelsea.
Expect Hart to start at St. James’ Park, but with a goalkeeper capable of taking his spot now in the City squad, he's in for a fight to keep hold of it.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2014-15 season. Follow him on Twitter here: @RobPollard_.
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