EPL

Liverpool champions: What must Man City do to regain the title in 2020-21?

By Sports Desk July 02, 2020

Manchester City were merely reigning Premier League champions from around the turn of the year. Any meaningful title defence ended a long time ago.

After amassing an astounding 198 points over the course of consecutive championship-winning campaigns, Pep Guardiola's men were unable to summon an adequate response in the face of Liverpool's relentless onslaught.

City's 2-1 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last week completed the formalities, meaning Guardiola's plans over how to wrest back control should already be well underway.

Ahead of Liverpool's trip to City on Thursday, we look at the areas where he and the Etihad Stadium's brain trust should be focusing their attention.

 

ADDRESS OBVIOUS GAPS IN THE SQUAD

Guardiola's suggestion at the end of last week that he might not seek a like-for-like replacement for Leroy Sane if the Germany winger completes his long-mooted switch to Bayern Munich understandably caused consternation among City fans. Vincent Kompany's influence and aura were irreplaceable when he called time on his career in Manchester in May 2019, but a new centre-back would certainly have come in handy.

The cruciate knee ligament injury that decimated Aymeric Laporte's campaign left Fernandinho simultaneously learning a new position and standing in as City's most reliable option in central defence, as Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones laboured. A high-quality partner for Laporte must be the number one transfer market priority.

A natural left-winger is also needed. Sane has been another long-term injury victim this term and, without that option, City's attacks have sometimes become narrow and predictable. On the subject of cruciate knee ligament injuries, Benjamin Mendy looks to have put a nightmarish two years behind him, although he endured a game to forget against Chelsea. It would be foolish to count on the France international's fitness holding for long and links to England left-back Ben Chilwell are understandable.

RECHARGE AND REPLENISH STAR MEN

The three positions above are likely to be the limit of City's ambitions in an uncertain market, with the depth of coronavirus' impact upon football finances yet to be fully realised. Whether or not the Court of Arbitration (CAS) for sport overturns or reduces their two-season Champions League ban must also be factored into any plans.

The good thing for Guardiola is the fact that plenty of room for improvement lies within. Aside from the imperious Kevin De Bruyne and the ever-prolific Sergio Aguero, it is hard to identify a senior City player who can be wholly satisfied with their efforts this term. Ederson's three errors leading to a goal are second only to Newcastle United goalkeeper Martin Dubravka (five) in the division, while Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling have at times appeared burned out following the exertions of a triumphant 2018-19.

UNLEASH PHIL FODEN

David Silva's departure at the end of this season was expected to usher in Phil Foden to blossom as the master's apprentice. This has been muddied slightly by the England Under-21 star's best performances coming in a wide attacking role, most notably his man-of-the-match outing in the EFL Cup final and his two-goal showing in the recent 5-0 demolition of Burnley. He was badly missed at Chelsea.

Guardiola loves players who are adept in a number of roles and Foden has thrived regardless of what his brief is on any given stage. The academy product has long looked a player at home in this City team; he now seems like one who could significantly elevate it. It is time to let him fly.

REMAIN BANNED FROM THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

From having to scale down more ambitious transfer targets to tackling some awkward conversations with star players over their immediate futures, the seismic blow of City's exclusion from the Champions League holding firm should not be underplayed. However, if we are looking at this purely in terms of their chances of winning a third Premier League title in four seasons, a coach of Guardiola's calibre getting free midweeks to hone his side to his version of perfection is something of which Liverpool and others would be right to be wary.

DON'T ACTUALLY CHANGE TOO MUCH

Under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, City compiled deplorably meek title defences. The clear daylight between themselves and Liverpool this time around makes it tempting to lump their 2019-20 efforts in with those other failures. But there is an important wider context. The Manchester United and Chelsea sides that unseated Mancini and Pellegrini were not a patch on Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool machine. This City had won six of the previous seven domestic honours on offer and could conceivably finish 2019-20 with the FA Cup and that elusive Champions League nestled alongside the EFL Cup in the trophy cabinet.

Also, it is not a slight on the Reds' brilliance to note most things that could have fallen in their favour this season have. That is inevitable. City sealed their 100-point season with a last-minute winner at Southampton, having beaten Saints, Bournemouth, West Ham and Huddersfield Town in similar fashion before the turn of the year. Mind-boggling deeds require a certain level of fortune.

Heading into their game at Chelsea, City were still ahead of Liverpool by five points with a game in hand in Opta's Expected Goals league table (Yes, yes… when's the parade?!?!). Liverpool's brutally clinical efforts are to be admired, but the underlying numbers suggest such a gulf will not become the norm.

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    DRUGS DON'T WORK

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    A seemingly resurgent Maradona was sent home from the 1994 World Cup after testing positive for a banned stimulant, and drugs continued to be a problem for Argentina's favourite son after he retired from playing. He later claimed to have given up drugs in 2004, following serious heart problems that led him to spend time in intensive care.

    GUN DRAMA

    Maradona was sentenced to a suspended jail sentence of two years and 10 months in 1998, four years on from an incident that saw him shoot at journalists with an air rifle.

    The February 1994 episode occurred outside his Buenos Aires home, and it was reported that four people were injured.

    Footage showed Maradona perched behind a Mercedes car, pointing the gun.

    TAXING TIMES

    He claimed to have been "treated like the worst criminal" by Italian authorities that were pursuing him for allegedly unpaid taxes.

    Speaking in 2016, Maradona told the Corriere della Sera newspaper: "I don't owe anything. They have been hounding me unfairly over the last 25 years for €40million with €35million in fines for an alleged tax violation that every single judge has ruled did not exist."

    Maradona added, according to ESPN, that he had been singled out as the only footballer to have jewellery and watches taken away by authorities.

    HOW WOULD HE MANAGE?

    Putting Maradona in charge of the Argentina national team looked like a dicey move, and his two-year reign effectively ended with a 4-0 defeat to Germany in the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals.

    Argentina had been in danger of missing out on the tournament but won their last two qualifying matches to scrape into the finals.

    Maradona was predictably elated with qualification, proving his doubters wrong, and ran into trouble when he told reporters to "suck it and keep on sucking it".

    FIFA imposed a two-month ban for the lewd outburst, with Maradona apologising for his comments.

    CEILING A DEAL WITH THE POPE

    By the late 1980s, Maradona was arguably the world's most celebrated sports star.

    Such celebrity status opens doors, and he met with Pope John Paul II.

    Maradona told a story in his autobiography, I Am Diego, of how he took issue with the pontiff's concern for poverty-stricken children, given the luxury set-up at the Vatican.

    He wrote: "Yes, I did argue with the Pope. I argued with him because I've been to the Vatican and seen the gold ceilings. And then I hear the Pope saying that the Church was concerned about poor kids. So? Sell the ceilings, mate! Do something!"

    HAND OF GOD

    From the Pope, to the Hand of God.

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    Maradona claimed it was God's hand that helped Argentina past their rivals at the Stadio Azteca, a step nearer their eventual triumph and his finest moment in the game.

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    The 60-year-old died in Buenos Aires on Wednesday, two weeks after being discharged from hospital having undergone a routine operation for a subdural haematoma.

    After that news was announced by the Argentine Football Association, tributes flooded in for the Napoli great and on Thursday news of his death made front and back pages all over the planet.

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    In his home country, the newspaper Cronica superimposed Maradona atop the World Cup trophy, back turned and walking away, under the headline "Adios" (goodbye).

    Clarin ran a picture of Maradona holding the World Cup aloft, with the words "Conmocion mundial: murio Diego Maradona" (World upheaval: Diego Maradona dies).

    Uruguayan outlet El Observador went with "A que planeta te fuiste" (Which planet did you go to?), in reference to his otherworldly talent.

    El Pais, a Spanish newspaper, said the former Barcelona forward was "Un dios del football" (A God of football).

    Also in Spain, Marca's front page featured the words "If I die, I want to be reborn and I want to be a footballer... and I want to be Diego Armando Maradona again".

    In France, L'Equipe ran a full front-page image of Maradona in his prime wearing the blue and white of his country, with a headline which declared "Dieu est mort" (God is dead).

    Germany's Kicker dedicated its front page to the news, putting the dates of Maradona's birth and death under a picture of the star playing for Argentina.

    La Gazzetta Dello Sport showed Maradona kissing the World Cup trophy and went with the words "Ho visto Maradona" (I've seen Maradona).

    It was against England that Maradona scored his famous 'Hand of God' goal as he led Argentina to World Cup glory at Mexico 86. English newspaper The Sun was among the outlets to play on that phrase, coined by the man himself.

    "In the hands of God," read that publication's front page, which featured an image of the incident as the diminutive forward beat England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to the ball. The paper described Maradona as "England's World Cup nemesis and one of the all-time greats".

    The Mirror ran a similar headline, adding: "Diego Maradona, a hero, a villain, a cheat and a genius... dead at 60".

    Placing a little more emphasis on his achievements, The Times opted for a picture of Maradona celebrating that 1986 success in Mexico City, accompanied by the headline "Millions mourn Maradona's death".

    And the Daily Express, using both the handball and trophy photographs, described Maradona as "the eternal, flawed genius".

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