Can we continue our fine recent league form against an inconsistent City team?
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Manchester City began the season as the bookmakers’ favourites to land the Premier League title. The arrival of Pep Guardiola, who many saw as the best manager in world football, was considered to be a master stroke, and many felt it would ensure that the title returned to the Etihad Stadium. But, despite six wins on the trot in their first six games of the season, which shortened their odds of finishing at the top, they have since been inconsistent for a team destined to win the league. On paper, those first six games did not appear to be the toughest, apart from perhaps a visit to their Manchester neighbours. But they won them all relatively comfortably, scoring eighteen goals in the process and conceding just five.
But in their next sixteen games they have suffered five defeats at the hands of Tottenham, Chelsea, Leicester, Liverpool and Everton. More worryingly perhaps, for a team who had high hopes, they have had four draws at home against Everton, Southampton, Middlesbrough and Tottenham. Had they won those four they would be sitting comfortably in second place, just four points behind the leaders, Chelsea.
But as it is, with just sixteen games of the season to go, they find themselves two points outside of the top four places, and with a fight on their hands to qualify for a Champions League place next season. Their cup performances have been more consistent, and despite being eliminated from the League Cup by their neighbours, they have progressed to the fifth round of the FA Cup where they have an away tie at Huddersfield, and to the last sixteen of the Champions League where they will face Monaco.
Of course they have already beaten us twice this season, 3-1 in the league at the end of August, and then the 5-0 thrashing in the FA Cup third round on our ground. In the league game, despite City scoring twice in the opening twenty minutes, we fought back with a goal from Antonio in the second half, and it took a goal in added-on time to finally seal the three points.
Guardiola has been criticised for his choice of goalkeeper to replace Joe Hart, and has been very touchy when interviewed on this subject by the media. Some statistics (on shot stopping) put Bravo, their keeper, near the bottom of the league of Premier League custodians, but of course the figures cannot take into account the quality of the shots that he has faced. Nevertheless the general consensus is that his performances have not been of the quality needed for a team hoping to win the title, although some blame must also be attached to their ageing defence, who have missed their captain, Kompany, for almost the whole of the season. This is one area that I hope we can exploit in the game. They have conceded 28 goals in their 22 league games, a figure that exceeds the four teams above them in the league, as well as four teams below them, including Middlesbrough who sit in sixteenth place!
Their attacking play, when it is on song, as it unfortunately was in the cup game here, is entertaining to watch, and their 43 goals scored (more away from the Etihad than at home!) is only bettered by the current top four. But their seven wins, four draws, and five defeats in their last sixteen league matches emphasises their inconsistency, and we shouldn’t go into the game fearing a repeat of the cup drubbing a few weeks ago. In fact our current league form, with five wins in our last seven league games, is far superior to their four wins in their last nine league games. On that basis, the bookmaker odds on offer, where we are quoted as around 5/1 to win the game, and City at around 2/1 on, would appear to be wide of the mark, but of course the two games where we have faced each other this season tell another story.
Nonetheless it is to be hoped that the apparent improved spirit following the removal of a certain Frenchman from the team (and now his subsequent departure), will mean that we can at least get something out of the game. With my trusty optimistic hat on I am hoping for a narrow win, perhaps 2-1, although a 2-2 draw may be a more realistic bet.
It will be interesting to see the team that our manager selects. Randolph will be in goal, and I expect a back four of Byram, Reid, Fonte and Cresswell. Kouyate has returned from the African Nations Cup, but whether he returns directly into the team is open to debate. For me, Obiang, Lanzini, Carroll and Antonio are certain starters, and he will almost certainly pick Noble. Of course new signing Snodgrass will be pushing for a place in the starting line-up as will Feghouli. Unfortunately Diafra Sakho is unlikely to be available until March, and it remains to be seen if we sign a striker on deadline day (I am writing this the day before). Bilic appears to have cooled on the prospect of signing Hogan from Brentford (I wonder if he really fancied him in the first place, perhaps hoping that Sunderland would part with Defoe?).
Now that Payet has gone for a reputed £25 million, we have money to spend, but I am uncertain as to the wisdom of doing so; perhaps we should wait until the summer now that we are virtually safe from getting involved in the scrap at the bottom end of the table? However many of our fans on social media are still desperate for a striker and a right-back. Calleri’s deflected goal will probably keep him in the squad, but he hasn’t convinced many yet (apart from the manager perhaps?), and Fletcher is perpetually on the fringe (surprisingly seemingly behind Calleri in the pecking order?).
And I’m not sure our manager could pick a right back based on his history (Antonio and Nordtveit don’t do it for me in this position). It was good to see that Martinez scored within minutes of coming on for his debut at Oxford. It was a well-taken goal, and he certainly looks a fine prospect. But then so does Reece Oxford, but he hasn’t been given a chance yet either! And I haven’t mentioned Fernandes who is another that I like.
I wonder if we will bring anyone in on deadline day tomorrow? Perhaps the long-awaited marquee signing? I won’t hold my breath.