Manchester City have made the leap into Champions League territory, but they'll be wanting even more this season. Enough money's been spent on the squad that a real push for the title is the only way to make the whole investment worthwhile. Can City challenge Manchester United and Chelsea's near-decade-long dominance atop the Premier League? Bitter and Blue's Danny Pugsley lets us know.
Having rid themselves of the monkey from their backs City will go into the season facing newer and bigger pressures. Bringing to an end the long wait for a trophy should not be underestimated, and of course was a vital step as the club looked to develop its mind set and look to take its place amongst the footballing elite.
However, and as I wrote in the wake of lifting the FA Cup and Champions League, the 2010/11 season was ultimately the fulfilment of expectation; the days of a trophy win were no longer the stuff of far-fetched fantasy but what was required from a club with the pretensions City now has.
Expectations now though will be raised considerably as a result, and rightly so. Would a trophy-less season bring calls for Roberto Mancini's head? What if City failed to repeat (let along build upon) a top four finish? In reality, the easy part has been achieved, the hard work now just beginning.
The main difficulty for the coming season will be in contending on two fronts in mounting both a serious challenge for the Premier League and Champions League. History shows it is a difficult act to balance and apart from the odd smattering City's squad is not littered with Champions League experience, let alone a history of competing on both fronts.
In the Premier League, City has to make up a nine-point gap on United which, whilst by no means insurmountable, will be an extremely difficult task. Last season's success will provide the belief within the squad that they can do it, something that shouldn't be underestimated. What is important (and not often referenced) to their hopes is that stability has finally been achieved within the squad after a succession of summer overhauls, allowing for the team to really develop and progress together.
In Europe, much may hinge on the draw as City could be paired with tough opponents that make qualification to the knock-out stages tricky, yet equally, they will be a side the top seeds will not want to be drawn with.
Of course City can win the Premier League and Champions League (the latter far less likely of course) but I don't see it this season quite yet. Over the course of a whole season, City has lacked that touch of consistency that United and Chelsea have shown time and again and the killer instinct hasn't always been there. That may sound harsh considering the success of last season, but the impressive finish to the season shouldn't mask the problems the side at times encountered in being able to finish teams off, and these are traits needed to lift the Premier League and for City to triumph they need to be right at the top of their game with others less so.
For the first time in a number of summers the club hasn't seen a raft of new signings, which despite the flagrant nature of it were necessary to improve the side from mid-table outfit to top six challengers to FA Cup winners, Champions League qualifiers and title aspirants.
With the side being settled as it is the need for a host of new faces is not there and there should be a natural progression and improvement shown by virtue of familiarity and continuation of selection given the spine or core of the side is very much settled. We have seen with the signings of Gael Clichy and Stefan Savic that there were areas Roberto Mancini felt the squad was light in and neither were too costly so could be good moves.
A lot could depend on Sergio Aguero not only settling in at the club, but how quickly he settles. Initial signs appear positive and it is clear that Mancini is high on him, possessing the ability to play as a lone central striker or - as I suspect he may do - as more of a number 10 to Edin Dzeko (or indeed Mario Balotelli) as the number 9.
The wildcard in all of this could be Carlos Tevez. Despite the proliferation of talent in attack his importance to this City side should not be underestimated in the slightest. Not just his goals and assists record (considerable as they may be) but his style is such that he is the heartbeat of the side, setting the tempo that the side follows. We saw when he was missing through injury that the side struggled to play the same way and lacked the offensive punch that he brings.
With time ebbing away, the chances of him departing (unless City are willing to virtually give him away) are decreasing, so should he remain at the club what role will he have? Despite his public utterings of discontent, what cannot be denied is when he crosses the line and takes to the pitch is the effort and commitment he gives. Malcontent off the field he maybe, but on the field he was the model citizen. If he does remain, how does Mancini utlilise him and what effect would this have on the make-up of the side given it appears that Mancini was very much planning for life without him?
As much as bringing players in is always key, the club would dearly love to permanently offload up to half a dozen players - the likes of Adebayor, Santa Cruz, Bellamy, Wright- Phillips and Bridge - which would be a significant chunk off the wage bill with this season being the first under the new FFP regulations. The reality though is that another raft of funded loan moves may be the likeliest option with clubs rightly hesitant to match their current deals.
The season will also be a big test for Mancini himself in the sense that the question asked will be whether he is the right man to take City a step further and land the title and Champions League, the latter of course eluding him at Inter, whilst the former was achieved with the assistance of the Calciopoli ruling. By and large he gets it right tactically, although he has come unstuck at times when City have struggled to create opportunities and break sides down - something he will need to address.
Two other key areas the statistics from last season highlighted were their record against the top half (ranking eighth) and in conceding over a third of goals in the final fifteen minutes of games. An impressive record against the bottom half and when scoring first they may have, but in a league where margins are tight those two areas have to be improved upon.
It is also interesting to note that in Italy he had problems with the boards at the clubs where he managed and sought to exert himself far more than shown at City, although after banking some credit with a trophy and Champions League qualification will he look to do the same? Already this pre-season we have seen the Italian talk about having more control of the club (i.e. not just team affairs) and citing the need to bring in additional faces. There were also reports last season of Mancini butting heads with the hierarchy over the hot topic of Financial Fair Play and it may be that his headstrong nature see him in conflict with those running the club.
How will the 2011/12 season play out then? Ultimately it is unlikely to be quite the defining and psyche-altering one that 2010/11 was, when you felt that City had taken step they had to in announcing their arrival.
It may well prove to be a task just that little bit too far to expect the title this season, but they will run both closer and will not be sweating over a top four spot in the fashion they have been the past two seasons. Cups are always difficult to predict, but the FA Cup win will have provided a thirst for more success in that regard, and the side should have enough to progress to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, where, with a little luck, any side has the ability to go deep in the competition once you reach the last sixteen.
What this season will bring is merely a continuation of the progress made during 2010/ 11, whereby they go on to cement their position in the top four, usurping Arsenal as the most legitimate challenger to the duopoly of United and Chelsea, and importantly, announcing their arrival on the European stage in the process.