Man City's World Cup fears and slow start to transfer window give hope to rivals
As Manchester City's normally alert buying department gets increasingly mired in negotiations with Napoli for the transfer of Jorginho, might there be reason to believe early-summer movement in the transfer market might be in the process of creating a closer battle for the 2018-19 title?
Napoli president Aurelio de Laurentiis is a film mogul with an expert's feel for the dramatic. He once labelled Lionel Messi "a cretin" and stated in 2011 that Sheikh Mansour "takes all the oil money and has built City only for a personal whim," continues to battle all comers in traditional style.
The wily Italian also once claimed that "At Napoli we have lost players, but this fact and our success shows that money is not everything."
Clearly the fees for the likes of Gonzalo Higuain have not exactly hindered his side's progress, however, and Napoli pushed Juventus hard for the Scudetto last season.
While the Jorginho transfer threatens to become De Laurentiis' latest masterpiece in suspense and farce, City's main rivals, Manchester United and Liverpool, are getting on with things.
Liverpool in particular have set about righting last season's evident wrongs with an operation to bolster their midfield strength that has already delivered Naby Keita and Fabinho to Anfield and threatens to produce Nabil Fekir in the next few days too. Links to Roma's much-coveted goalkeeper Alisson would, if made concrete, serve to cover practically all of the Anfield club's weaknesses from last season.
Manchester United, meanwhile, have plugged one of their own problem areas with all-action Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk.
With Arsenal in evident decline, Chelsea facing uncertainty from top to bottom and Tottenham busy fending off interest in manager Mauricio Pochettino, a three-way battle between the North West giants becomes increasingly likely.
Anybody betting against City at this stage, after a season of record-breaking excellence, would have to be categorised as a chancer or an arch optimist on behalf of the two main challengers, but hope springs eternal in football.
The fact that City crossed the finishing line last season a full 19 points clear of runners-up United and an astonishing 25 ahead of fourth-placed and Champions League finalists Liverpool would suggest there is a fair bit of catching up to be undertaken.
City's star-studded squad means they will remain in the driving seat, but the traditionally vacuous weeks before the start of the World Cup have proved to be an environment of rich pickings for their rivals. Securing good early-season buys is one thing, but could there be another factor in United's and Liverpool's favour?
The World Cup might in itself produce another significant problem for Pep Guardiola's men. The problem is one directly attached to City's manager and is not really anything new. City's grand trail of success means they are the top providing club for this summer's tournament, with a total of 16 squad members on various flights to Russia, one more than either of the Spanish giants Barcelona or Real Madrid will be providing. It would have been even more had Germany's coach Joachim Low not decided that Young Player of the Year Leroy Sane was surplus to his requirements.
All of this serves as yet another reflection of the work the Catalan has done to shove City into the limelight ahead of Chelsea, United and Liverpool, but it also delivers an extra weight on his players.
This is nothing new for Guardiola, however, as he managed exactly the same feat at Barcelona and at Bayern Munich. The Catalan's influence on the World Cup successes of Spain in 2010 and Germany in 2014 came in years when he managed those countries' league champions. His Barcelona and Bayern sides also provided the most players to each tournament, as City will do this time around.
Not only that but the style of play of the world champions was heavily influenced too, with Guardiola's doctrines shining through in the way Spain and Germany approached those successive tournaments. Although all of this might be a boon to Gareth Southgate's England, it can be considered another source of anxiety for City.
With so many of City's squad involved in the tournament, will a relative lack of rest this summer lead to a slow start to the 2018-19 campaign? It is perhaps with this in mind that Guardiola is pressing on with his interest in Jorginho, who will not be adding his efforts to Brazil's 2018 World Cup charge.
A month of international football will draw attention elsewhere, but City's efforts to begin bolstering for the coming season will have been redoubled thanks to the early breakthrough made by their rivals.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.