The curtain rises on a new English season as Manchester City and Arsenal clash (live, Sunday, FOX Sports 1, 10 a.m. ET) in the FA Community Shield.
The Community Shield is the new season's unofficial start, a one-off between last season's FA Cup winners and the Premier League title holders. And while both of these teams will want to get off on the right foot, neither side will be fielding a full-strength team for the match. The World Cup, combined with the declining relevance of the Shield -- it is essentially a quasi-friendly these days -- means that teams are really using this match as a final tune-up before the games kick off the following Saturday.
But there is already sniping between the managers on the eve of this game, all of it revolving around Manchester City's possible breach of Financial Fair Play. Last May, City accepted restrictions on both incoming transfers and their European squad -- along with a hefty fine -- while stressing publicly that they did not believe they actually were in breach of the rules. City had posted combined losses in excess of $240 million over the last two seasons -- a clear violation of UEFA rules -- but argued that their model was moving towards financial stability and in any case, there was disagreement over transfers made prior to 2010.
Not many accepted City's rationale. The club has been one of the Premier League's biggest spenders and while they have not thumbed their noses at the rules in the manner of, say, Paris Saint-Germain, there is no question that City have spent big and spent often. And that has rankled Arsenal's famously cost-conscious manager, Arsene Wenger, who has overseen a club that has been hampered by debts incurred from the construction of the Emirates Stadium.
Wenger alleged that two of City's more eyebrow-raising moves -- poaching Arsenal defender Bacary Sagna on a free,and the loan deal of Frank Lampard via NYC FC -- were intended to dodge FFP rules. City were subsequently moved to clarify that they would be paying Lampard's wages in full during the period of the loan, and manager Manuel Pellegrini also addressed the issue on Thursday, saying he was "surprised" by Wenger's comments.
"I think as managers we have enough problems with our own teams to be talking about other teams," said Pellegrini in a press conference. "The only thing I can say is that we have important restrictions about the amount of money we can spend, and Frank Lampard was a free player. We didn't spend any money in bringing him from New York City to Manchester City."
If some of this is to distract from the players who won't be available for Sunday's game, well, that's perfectly understandable: both sides will have some big gaps.
Arsenal will be without as many as four key players, with Mesut Ozil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski all on leave following their World Cup win; Theo Walcott is not expected to rejoin the lineup until Aug. 31 because of an ACL injury. In addition, defender Thomas Vermaelen is heading to Barcelona and will not be available for the Gunners this weekend.
"I said at the start of pre-season that Thomas could leave us because he needs to play now," Wenger said in a press conference on Thursday. "He's in a position now where it's difficult to stand in his way if he finds an interesting opportunity."
Arsenal have added an intriguing quartet, headlined by Chilean star Alexis Sanchez. 19-year-old Calum Chambers was signed as part of Southampton's fire sale, and is expected to slot in for the departed Thomas Vermaelen. Arsenal also picked up keeper David Ospina to challenge Wojciech Szczesny. Sagna's departure does leave a hole, and it is difficult not to see his direct replacement, Mathieu Debuchy, as a downgrade at that position.
City have had a quieter off-season -- by their standards, at least -- with only four transfers so far. Eliaquim Mangala is expected to join the club from Porto as well, but as it stands, City have picked up Fernando, former Arsenal right back Sagna -- and Lampard. The England midfielder left Chelsea for MLS' newest club, but with a year to go before NYC FC begins play, Lampard was loaned back to City, who will also pay his wages.
Most of these players will not feature on Sunday as City have confirmed eight players are out -- including Lampard and Sagna -- along with six men who featured in the World Cup. Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta highlight the list, but new keeper Willy Caballero is in the squad alongside Fernando.
With little to play for here, expect both teams to try things out. For Arsenal, both Yaya Sanogo and Joel Campbell have impressed in flashes, and fans may be wondering if either man is ready to step into a primetime slot. Arsenal also still need a solid holding midfielder, which is why the club is reportedly interested in Sporting Lisbon's William Carvalho -- though a deal is a long way off. That lack of tenacity in the middle could haunt the Gunners this season, though they feel closer to a complete team than they have in years past.
City fans will be wondering if Stevan Jovetic can repeat the form he displayed at Fiorentina after a disappointing poor season at City. They will also be wondering just how Fernando slots in alongside the likes of Yaya Toure.
But don't expect those questions to be answered immediately on Sunday. Instead, take the Community Shield for what it is: An amuse-bouche for the season to come.
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