Manchester City need to shake off poor run and spectre of past history
The history of Manchester City has plenty of trials and tribulations. Up until a few years ago, the club was seen as one that would gleefully shoot itself in the foot whenever the opportunity arose. With the steady advance of time, however, things have begun to change. In fact, almost everything has changed at City.
With the succession from Mark Hughes, to Roberto Mancini, on through Manuel Pellegrini to Pep Guardiola in what used to be the very hottest of managerial hot seats, City's face and image has undergone a complete makeover.
It is remarkable to think that it was only in September 2008, eight short years ago, that the wealth of Sheikh Mansour began to trickle into a club that had made a habit of offering false dawns to its supporters.
City have gone from a yo-yo club recently returned from the third tier of English football, into one that expects to be among the fight for Champions League glory each year.
However, the Barcelona defeat on Wednesday has opened up old wounds, with media speculation rife that there is unrest in the camp. With the arrival of Guardiola this summer, the obvious intention was to aid City's climb up the final rungs of the ladder leading to long-term elite participation. Ten straight wins from the season's start suggested City were not only on target for this aim, but steaming well ahead of schedule.
This run has now come to a grinding halt, with City's last four games delivering two draws, against Celtic and Everton and -- much more poignantly -- two strikingly gloomy defeats. The first saw City dismantled by an eager and hard-running Tottenham side, drilled expertly by Mauricio Pochettino. The second, against Barcelona this week, has had a significant effect on all at the Etihad.
Guardiola's return to the Camp Nou was heralded as the two greatest footballing sides in Europe facing off. What actually happened, via a succession of weird managerial decisions and typically "old-City" events, was a match that ended up with City receiving a heavy beating while playing the best football yet in their five recent matches with the Catalan giants.
But there was more to it than a simple thrashing while playing good football. Guardiola, having publically dispensed with Joe Hart and Yaya Toure and placed huge doubt over the future of captain Vincent Kompany, decided to prolong a dressing down for Sergio Aguero by dropping him to the bench.
Guardiola is in the not-so-subtle process of ripping out City's trophy-winning spine, a task Pellegrini was often accused of avoiding in his third year in charge.
So far, City's supporters have seen the point in replacing Hart with a goalkeeper more adept at playing with his feet -- although Claudio Bravo's disastrous showing in Spain has set the cat among the pigeons. With Toure banished from first-team duties and Kompany fit but not even making the bench last Wednesday, Aguero is the last sacred pillar left standing.
Aguero, like his discarded high-profile teammates, will be painfully aware of the meaning of the messages he is receiving. City await the arrival of Brazilian youngster Gabriel Jesus in January, sniffed around Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang last summer and have made it abundantly clear that Aguero needs proper competition for his place in the team.
The Argentine's strike rate is second to none in the Premier League, but his performances over the last 14 months have frequently left something to be desired. Perhaps the rash of missed penalties that have befallen the striker this season have also told his manager something. Guardiola is, after all, a coach who works on instinct, feeling and "the smell" of things.
So, with Southampton arriving at the weekend, never has the pressure been stronger for City to stop the rot and put on a display of togetherness, cohesion and clear thinking. With Arsenal breathing down their necks at the top of the table, a home win is now the only solution available to prevent a further very public meltdown in the eyes of the media.
This weekend's visitors are also returning from a tough continental trip, where they lost to Inter Milan. While tired legs may be the only hindrance for Southampton, City's players will be digesting many more issues.
Ronald Koeman, Southampton's coach up until this season, stated last weekend -- as manager of Everton -- that City were the best team he had faced during his coaching career. If they are to live up to this title, they will need to banish the lingering smoke of troubled times and win convincingly against Koeman's old charges.
Anything less will begin to convince the supporters that their beloved club is yet to fully shake off those deep-running trials and tribulations of the past.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.