Just how good are Manchester City?
It was difficult to ignore the symbolism in the Manchester City directors' box on Monday night.
On one side was Kenny Dalglish, the greatest player ever to play for the most successful club in Britain, and a few rows away was Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, who will never know what it is like to score in front of the Kop but is exerting an influence over English football right now like no-one else.
It was the game that they were watching which put everything in perspective. Dalglish's Liverpool were demolished 3-0 by a City team that has benefited from £130million of investment this summer – about £40m more than it took to assemble the entire 18-man Liverpool squad. The context to the night was that Liverpool were without Javier Mascherano, whose desire to leave is another corollary of their dwindling force on the pitch and the chaos in their ownership.
Liverpool were never a selling club and, until two years ago, City were scarcely a net buying club. And while these are early days yet, you only have to look at the hesitation with which Liverpool have approached Fulham's £5m valuation of Paul Konchesky to know the difference in their two situations.
City have the lot. They have Emmanuel Adebayor on the substitutes' bench; they have Mario Balotelli in the stands and – debatable though it is in terms of the ethics of the game – they can afford to subsidise the wages of Craig Bellamy to keep him in the Championship and away from potential rivals. Everyone thinks they have good enough players to win the title, but do they have the team?
To answer that you have to ask yourself, what is Roberto Mancini's best side? It is impossible to tell now with injuries and new players at different levels of form and fitness after a World Cup summer. But in a month or two the hierarchy will begin to take shape and, providing City are still in the hunt come next spring, a first XI will emerge.
Every manager in charge of a big expensive squad likes to say there is no such thing as a first-choice XI but one exists at every club. On Monday night, Mancini pointed to the proximity of tomorrow's Europa League match against Timisoara as evidence that he has to rotate his players. It is a convenient way for a manager to protect the egos in their squad from bruising. But look at the sides picked towards the end of last season by Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United or Chelsea's Carlo Ancelotti and you will see that a first XI emerged, however much the managers denied it.
Nigel de Jong conceded as much yesterday when he said that he had noticed the difference in the club. "There is no doubt that the intensity has upped in training with the arrival of the new players," he said. "Everyone is working and fighting for each other. There are lots of positive things in this team. You have to raise your game when players like we have signed come into the group but it is not just them, it is younger ones too pushing from underneath."
City have assembled one of the best squads in the history of the Premier League, but we will only know how good they are when Mancini is forced to pick his best players for the big games that will come thick and fast in the last three months of the season.
Judging by the win over Liverpool, Adam Johnson already looks like a fixture in this City team. There is a nice symmetry with the more direct James Milner on the opposite side. It is hard to imagine Mancini straying from his preference for five midfielders and one striker, so that begs the question of how much Adebayor will play while Carlos Tevez is fit.
Equally, it is difficult to be sure what Balotelli will be like over the course of a season, or Jerome Boateng or David Silva. The return of the Brazilian striker Jo on Monday night was another intriguing twist. Does Yaya Touré get in ahead of De Jong or even Gareth Barry, who was only just passed over for the captaincy this season?
Every team that has won the Premier League title has had a solid core to it that is, injuries aside, largely unchanged over the course of a season. Yet the prospect of City keeping even five players in place for, say, 30 out of 38 league games will involve Mancini making squad players out of some very famous names. These are big decisions that the City manager must make and they do not have obvious answers.
Of course, every club that has pretensions of winning the Premier League needs a good squad but presumably none of the players whom City signed this summer were sold the "project" on the basis that they would be watching most of it from the bench. This is a remarkable squad but it has not grown organically with players rising up through the ranks. It is full of players who expect to play.
"I want to give as much chance as possible to new players to settle into the team and learn about each other so we can grow as a group," Mancini said in his Monday programme notes. It is a nice idea but the only group they want to be in is the XI who start the game.