By Liam Twomey
For the second summer in a row, Manchester City are going about their transfer business quietly and efficiently. Last year’s £100 million splurge on Fernandinho, Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, Stevan Jovetic and Martin Demichelis was designed to arm Manuel Pellegrini with a squad boasting the quality and variety to see off all Premier League challengers. The plan worked perfectly.
This time it is about filling any remaining gaps in certain positions, and the remit is simple and clear: competition.
Bacary Sagna’s arrival on a free transfer from Arsenal to challenge Pablo Zabaleta means two of the country’s most accomplished right-backs will be vying for one spot this season. Fernando is a genuine contender to start at the base of midfield.
And Willy Caballero has not moved to Manchester to be the new Costel Pantilimon.
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It is an ambition Pellegrini has actively encouraged. The Chilean does not want to replace Hart - the England man has been offered a new contract by City and is expected to sign it - but he is keen to put an end to the high-profile errors and erratic decisions that have dogged the 27-year-old over the past two seasons.
Pantilimon displaced Hart at his lowest ebb between October and December last year, but the giant Romanian never possessed the profile or all-round ability to be a genuine long-term threat. Caballero is a different matter entirely.
Consistently one of the best goalkeepers in Spain over the past three seasons, the 32-year-old also impressed during Malaga’s shock run to the Champions League quarter-finals in the 2012-13 campaign. His distribution of the ball is considered superior to Hart’s and he is more comfortable playing as a ‘sweeper keeper’ – a role Pellegrini regards as fundamental to his system going forward at City.
But most importantly, he is a man Pellegrini knows and trusts – much like countryman and good friend Martin Demichelis, who overcame huge criticism to play a key role in City’s title triumph last term.
“Knowing his way of working, the way Pellegrini plays football and his coaching staff – that’s fantastic,” he added. “I started training [with City] on the first day and I felt as if I had been working with them for a year. I’m starting something knew, but it’s already familiar – and that gives you spectacular confidence.”
Hart and Pellegrini enjoy a good working relationship, and certainly much better than the atmosphere of tension and barely repressed anger which prevailed under Roberto Mancini, who made no secret of his intention to replace his No.1 with Asmir Begovic before he was sacked.
The England international appreciated that Pellegrini declined to publicly hang him out to dry in front of the press during his crisis of confidence, instead removing him from the firing line before giving him the chance to knuckle down and win his place back off Pantilimon in time to anchor City’s title charge.
Pellegrini, for his part, respected Hart’s response but wants to keep him in the mindset of constant improvement, and believes the looming presence of Caballero over his shoulder should enable the 27-year-old to do just that. But if he slips up, his manager will have no problem making a swift change.
Caballero possesses one other potentially valuable advantage. Back in the summer of 2009, Hart impressed Mancini by returning for pre-season training early and producing a string of good performances on City’s pre-season tour of the US, prompting the Italian to stick with him for a trip to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham on the opening day of the Premier League campaign. Hart produced a Man of the Match display and Shay Given never won his place back.
This summer it is Caballero who has been between the sticks for City’s first two friendlies in Scotland against Dundee and Hearts, with Hart not set to join up with his team-mates until they cross the Atlantic to face Kansas City on July 23.
All things being equal, Hart is still expected to begin the season as City’s first choice. But with Caballero now in town, his margin for error has disappeared.
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