City following Chelsea blueprint as owners’ combined spend nears £3bn
When does a rich man's plaything become a rich man's chore?
Possibly when a richer, more ambitious rival comes along and learns quickly how to beat you at your own game.
When Premier League leaders Manchester City face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge tonight, Roman Abramovich will get a first-hand view of the Frankenstein's monster he has inadvertently helped to create at the Etihad Stadium.
Chelsea owner Abramovich has outspent City's Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan by approximately £1bn since arriving in west London in June 2003, but the Russian oligarch has taken eight years to creep towards the £2bn mark. At his current rate of spending, Sheikh Mansour will break that barrier two years quicker.
It has taken a combined investment of almost £3bn from both men to transform tonight's fixture into a battle of wealth, ego and power -- as well as a mere contest for three Premier League points.
But the product on the pitch tonight would suggest that City have aggressively taken Chelsea's blueprint to another level and left Abramovich with the expensive quandary of whether to stick or twist in an effort to reclaim past glories.
The picture beneath the surface however, paints a different image, one of Chelsea's roots beginning to bear fruit in a manner that City can only aspire to.
Within Stamford Bridge, and also among the hierarchy at Old Trafford, the Nou Camp and Allianz Arena, there is a sense that City's historical and geographical limitations will eventually restrict their so-far unchecked growth.
City have made the Chelsea template work on the pitch -- well-recruited young, athletic players under an all-powerful manager.
But closing the gap on the London club commercially, a key issue once UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations come into force in 2015, will be an altogether more difficult challenge.
The most recent accounts posted by both clubs help illustrate the challenge facing City off the pitch.
While a loss of £194.9m, fuelled by an annual wage bill of £174m, obscures City's success in hiking turnover to £153m, Chelsea's figures are much healthier.
Their £172.5m wage bill is a cigarette paper away from City's, but turnover of £205m and loss of £68.6m emphasises the distance City must travel to surpass Chelsea. Globally, Chelsea have become the closest challenger commercially to the well-established triumvirate of Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The club are ranked fourth, with 250 million global fans, as the world's most recognised and supported, while Chelsea are a top-three brand within the Adidas football stable.
When City played Club America in San Francisco in July, it was in front of a crowd of 11,000. Two years earlier, more than 81,000 witnessed Chelsea's clash with Inter Milan in Pasadena.
Garry Cook's presence at City prior to his resignation as chief executive in September was viewed within the game as a positive factor in the club's attempts to 'crack' America due to his links with Nike.
Abu Dhabi's choice as his successor is being eagerly awaited by rival clubs keen to assess City's targets for commercial expansion.
But those targets depend on exploiting the City brand, and it is one which has yet to establish the global footprint of Chelsea.
Even within Stamford Bridge, there is an acceptance that United, with their 50 years of history dating back to the Munich disaster, are a brand apart.
Real, Barcelona, Bayern and the Milan clubs are also respected.
Chelsea's big selling point is their London base, and the club actively leverage the London aspect when recruiting players and sponsors.
Big brands, whether they are players or companies, are attracted by the pull of London.
But while City have in the past compared their growth to that of Pepsi, which piggybacked the much more established Coca-Cola in the 1980s to establish its brand, exploiting United's global appeal to secure the spotlight can be no more than a phase-one strategy. City's challenge is to establish their own unique credentials in a crowded market.
Once the 'project' of becoming the best has been achieved, what next?
In the United States, the LA Lakers and New York Knicks remain the most powerful and prosperous NBA brands, despite the recent successes of the San Antonio Spurs, which supports the theory that history, location and success will always outweigh success alone.
Progress is clearly being made at City, however. The £400m, 10-year ground and shirt sponsorship deal with Etihad Airways shows that club's ability to match deals struck by their most established rivals.
The club are also keen to stress their involvement in the local community.
The purchase of land in east Manchester close to the Etihad Stadium will regenerate a run-down area of the city and lead to the building of a new training campus, should planning permission be granted on December 22.
City's determination to grow as a 'good neighbour' even stretches to products such as ice cream and soft drinks in the stadium press room being sourced from local manufacturers.
Their determination to project themselves as Manchester's team has been evident since the infamous 'Welcome to Manchester' poster following the signing of Carlos Tévez in 2009.
Having finished ninth in the Premier League the season prior to Sheikh Mansour's arrival in September 2008, City have depended on an accelerated investment strategy.
Chelsea's rise under Abramovich was faster, but the Russian purchased a Champions League semi-finalist with a well-established squad and structure.
Crucial to Chelsea's success was Jose Mourinho's appointment after Claudio Ranieri's failure to repay Abramovich's investment with silverware.
Roberto Mancini now appears to be emulating Mourinho's strategy of recruitment and winning tactics.
Chelsea's trajectory was checked by Mourinho's departure, but the club have since won a Double, reached a Champions League final and secured consistent top-three finishes.
The belief is that, having built a winning structure, Chelsea can succeed, whether the manager is Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti or Andre Villas-Boas.
Can City thrive without Mancini, if they are faced with the loss of the Italian and his self-appointed backroom team as Chelsea survived the loss of Mourinho and his coaches?
City are a formidable challenge for Chelsea, however, and one which prompted the £70m deadline-day purchase of Fernando Torres and David Luiz in January.
But while Abramovich may be forced to repeat that investment again to close the gap on City on the pitch, there is only one winner off it.