Premier League preview: Manchester City

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Each day from now until the beginning of the Premier League season, we will preview two teams from England’s top flight. You can view them all here at PST Preview central. Don’t forget, the 2013-14 PL season begins on August 17th, and for the first-time ever you can watch every game live on NBC Sports.

Manchester City came blasting onto the top-of-the-table scene in 2009.  Having been purchased by the oil-rich Abu Dhabi United Group – owned mainly by the Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family and high up in the U.A.E. government – the club went on an unprecedented spending spree to blast them up the table from seasons of mid-table obscurity to fifth place in 2010, third place in 2011, and the Premier League title in 2012. The run also included winning the 2011 F.A. Cup, their first major trophy since 1976.

The Citizens now remain a force at the top of the table, although last season was a disappointment in relation to the previous three years of growth.  They finished second in the Premier League, which on its own sounds like a success (hey, you can’t win ’em all), but the kicker is that bitter rivals Manchester United dominated the league, winning the title by 11 points over City. That margin of defeat, plus defeat to Wigan in the FA Cup final and City’s enormously disappointing exit from the Champions League in the group stage – they finished last in their “group of death” along with Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid, and Ajax – cost former manager Roberto Mancini his job.

Transfers In: M Fernandinho (Shakhtar Donetsk, Ukraine), M Jesus Navas (Sevilla, Spain), F Stevan Jovetic (Fiorentina, Italy), F Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla, Spain)

Transfers Out: D Wayne Bridge (Reading, England), D Kolo Toure (Liverpool, England), D Jeremy Helan (Sheffield Wednesday, England), F Carlos Tevez (Juventus, Italy), F Roque Santa Cruz (Malaga, Spain)

source: Getty ImagesKey Player: Looking at Manchester City’s squad, it has some serious star power. Despite the losses of strikers Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez – both tabloid-favorites – in the last year, there still remains some big names.  Englishman Joe Hart is one of the best goalkeepers in the world.  Sergio Aguero scored gobs of goals in their title-winning season two years ago, and remains vital in the attack.  Midfielder Yaya Toure is world-renowned for his vision and strength.  Defenders Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta had excellent seasons last year. However, with the sale of Tevez, new manager Manuel Pellegrini has moved the attacking spotlight directly onto previously underrated Edin Dzeko (pictured). More than ever, Dzeko will carry the load on his shoulders up front, with Aguero most likely stepping back into a supporting striker role.

It’s not to say he can’t handle it.  The Bosnian superstar has had one of the best goal-per-minute numbers in the entire Premier League the past few seasons, despite most of his duties coming off the bench behind Tevez and Aguero.  The 27-year-old scored 14 goals in 32 Premier League appearances, but only half those appearances were starts.  That gave him a goal every 130 minutes last season.  The year before that when City won the title? A spectacular 107 minutes per goal.  And it’s not just the Premier League he’s lit up either – in the 2-1/2 Bundesliga seasons with Wolfsburg prior to moving to City, he scored a goal every 123 minutes.

Dzeko has the numbers and the pedigree for the full-time job at City.  Now, he’s getting his chance.

Manager: Roberto Mancini was well-liked by Manchester City fans, but was unfortunately a victim of his own success.  His title-winning season proved to the front office that the job could be done, and therefore the next season’s results – despite what would have been a smashing success a few years ago – were considered a severe disappointment.  With rumors flying of his sacking the entire second half of last year, he began to alienate players and burn bridges, leading to his sacking following the season.

Chilean Manuel Pellegrini was hired in his stead, and the club is looking forwards.  Pellegrini has a few big names on his managerial resume, but none for very long, and experience is where he lacks.  He managed throughout South America for 15 years of his career, finally seeing major success with Argentinian giants River Plate which led to his hiring at La Liga’s Villareal.  In Spain, Pellegrini saw smashing Champions League success at Villareal, Malaga, and Real Madrid, although his time at Madrid was short, losing his job to “The Special One” – something which Pellegrini has publicly expressed his regret, wishing he’d been given a chance to build a squad.

Last year, Pellegrini brought Malaga deeper into the Champions League than the club ever has been before, winning Group C with an unbeaten run of six matches against AC Milan, Zenit, and Anderlecht.  They defeated Porto in the first knockout round, and missed out on a place in the semi-finals by losing to Borussia Dortmund in heartbreaking fashion, conceding two stoppage time goals with victory in their clutches.  Despite the finish, his smashing success at Malaga in the Champions League – something that still eludes Manchester City – led him to be selected for the job.

Outlook: Manchester City has changed a lot since the end of last season.  With a new manager, plus a relatively new target man up front, they will look to push towards more trophies.  City goes as Edin Dzeko goes this year.  They can manage marginal success without him, but they’ll need him to fire in goals at a high pace to bring home the silverware.  New boys Stevan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo were brought in with big money moves for both support and depth, and Sergio Aguero remains key. But at the moment, it all runs through Dzeko.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

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Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

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England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.