City close the gap on United; but for how long?

Having closed the gap on Manchester United, they will find it hard going to keep pace with their city rivals long term, irrespective of their spending.

It was coming. When Edin Dzeko’s strike took a fortuitous deflection of David Silva at the weekend and found its way into the Manchester United net, there was something of the inevitable about it. As there was in Manchester United’s winner, but for different reasons. As Wayne Rooney acrobatically volleyed into the back of the net, there was a sense of classic United about it. They had been on the backfoot, City looked to be getting stronger as the game went on, yet still there was a piece of magic in Rooney.

The result aside, the balance of play says much about how far Manchester City have come under Roberto Mancini. Since dispensing of Mark Hughes’ services last season, Mancini has taken the club to another level, creating the basis of a real team at Eastlands. It was said that you cannot buy a team and that was what Manchester City had to learn. If they give Mancini the time he deserves to build this side, then City will be a strong team in the coming years.

Out went the egocentric Robinho and Emmanuel Adebayor. Joe Hart has added a reassuring presence in goal, whilst Vincent Kompany has developed into one of the best centre backs in the league. There is no doubt that Manchester City are closing the gap on their city rivals, much as Tottenham have on Arsenal in the last couple of campaigns.

Yet unlike Tottenham, City’s success could all crumble so quickly. Chelsea have demonstrated the limits of unrestrained spending, and that is primarily that you cannot spend without restriction. If you spend £200 million one summer, you are limited in the future. Manchester City have increased their turnover substantially but it is still dwarfed by the gigantic outgoings the club have generated.

Crucial to the club’s ability to further close the gap is qualification for the Champions League. The spending they have embarked upon is reliant upon finishing in the Premier League’s top four. It is a bold gamble, yet it could be a reckless one too. Tottenham are just two points behind with a game in hand, and are a far stronger team with a better spirit, demonstrated by the number of times they have come from behind in games so far this season to win. The smart money would be on Spurs to finish above City.

If Spurs do finish above Mancini’s side, then the big question will be whether they finish third or fourth. If they finish third, then Mancini’s team could still qualify for the competition by finishing ahead of Chelsea. This is of course, presuming that Arsenal and Manchester United finish first and second in whichever order. The league is starting to look as if there is a three way battle for the last two Champions League spots. For Chelsea, failure to qualify for the elite competition could trigger the end of an era for the club. Without the finance of the Champions League, they would have to reconsider their plans significantly, and would have to embark on a significant cost cutting exercise. For Manchester City, failure to qualify would cause catastrophic consequences for a team whose financial plans rest on them achieving the goal of finishing in the top four.

Without Champions League revenue, they would be increasingly unlikely to meet UEFA’s financial fair play rules, and therefore even if they qualified for the Champions League in the following years there would be an increased and more likely risk that they would be disqualified from entry into the competition. The way to avoid that scenario of course, would be to trim the wage bill and the squad, whilst still retaining players capable of enabling them to qualify for the competition. This is achievable. Mancini is a good enough manager, and they have a good enough squad to qualify for the tournament even with a few sales and wage cuts. But the key would be whether their owners have the patience and intelligence to see that through.

The alternative would be the Abramovich approach – to risk all on a new manager, a fresh spurt of spending in the summer and to try to buy their way into the top four. The big question is whether the Sheikhs who run the club have the temperemant to make the right decisions. Even if they qualify for the Champions League, at some point their players will reach a point where they move past their prime, as Chelsea’s have. To renew that sustainably you either need to buy talented youngsters or generate them as a club. Even if Manchester City are able to qualify for the Champions League this year, that would merely delay the point at which heavy spending has to be offset against a more methodical approach. It is a crucial season for the club. They may close the gap on their city rivals further if they can qualify for the competition, but it may be short lived. Equally, they may fail to qualify for the Champions League and see their whole strategy destroyed. Their short term prospects are very much in the balance, and could go either way. But the long term ambition to keep pace and move ahead of United will depend on whether they have the temperemant and nous to spend less and still win. Like Chelsea, they may find that they have bitten off more than they can chew.