Even without their most creative player, Manchester City have shown they have more than enough ways to find goals of late. The Citizens look to take a huge step in advancing out of Group F of the Champions League on Wednesday when they look to sweep their home-and-home set versus Shakhtar Donetsk.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
After an initial stumble at home versus Lyon, City have regrouped with back-to-back wins to move atop the group with six points at the halfway point, one better than the French side. Pep Guardiola’s team also have a plus-3 goal difference, the best in Group F after swatting aside the Ukraine side 3-0 a fortnight ago.
That victory is part of a five-match run in all competitions that was extended Sunday with a 6-1 thrashing of Southampton. Raheem Sterling had two goals and two assists while Sergio Aguero chipped on a goal while helping on two others as City moved on quickly in response to losing winger Kevin De Bruyne for a prolonged period for the second time this season.
The Belgium international is expected to miss at least four weeks with a knee injury suffered late in City’s mid-week victory over Fulham in the Carabao Cup, but the front line more than picked up the slack as Leroy Sane made the most of his turn in the rotation with a goal and an assist.
About the only negative was City’s shutout streak in league play ending at 10 1/2 hours after Danny Ings converted a penalty on the half-hour for the Saints. City, who have scored 17 goals during their current win streak, have shipped just seven in 16 matches across all competitions. And ever the perfectionist, Guardiola saw plenty to pick apart from his side despite the lopsided win that moved them two points clear atop the table.
“Without the ball we conceded a lot.,” he said. “We conceded a lot of corners, free kicks and they have the best corner-taker in the Premier League,” he told the club’s official website. “It’s always dangerous, but of course I am so satisfied with the result and performance.
“At 3-1, they created problems for us. Their crosses were always dangerous, and we had problems controlling long balls. Scoring in the last minute of the first-half made it better for us in the second. Southampton, I felt, could score more. But at the same time, we also could have scored more goals.”
While most news between matches off the pitch revolves around who is and who isn’t starting each match for City, there is a fresh new round of controversy involving the club’s finances after leaked documents were part of a report in Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine. The documents showed that a substantial portion of sponsorship money — £59.5 million of an estimated £67.5 million — that was supposed to come from Etihad actually came from the club’s ownership group, which would be a violation of UEFA’s fair play principles.
While Europe’s football governing body has yet to offer a comment on the story, it is possible an investigation could be re-launched. City were fined approximately £17.5 million in 2014 for breaching FFP rules, and further leaked documents from that same article showed a secret agreement between current FIFA president and then-UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino which allowed City to avoid a Champions League ban.
The club released a statement last week reading “We will not be providing any comment on out of context materials purported to have been hacked or stolen from City Football Group and Manchester City personnel and associated people. The attempt to damage the club’s reputation is organised and clear.”
City did field close to a full first-choice lineup versus Southampton, and Guardiola gave late run-outs to Vincent Kompany, Fabian Delph and Phil Foden. Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus were unused substitutes, and with the Manchester derby looming this weekend versus eternal rivals United, it would not be surprising to see Jesus leading the line like he did in the reverse fixture in search of his first goal in six matches.
In that 3-0 win over Donetsk, Guardiola did some experimenting as he used Nicolas Otamendi in central defence and let centre back John Stones play out wide on the right. With a chance to put a hammerlock on the group, Guardiola likely will play a more straightforward back four.
One other side note for this match has been the home support for Champions League matches by City supporters. Guardiola has been on record about wanting a more vocal backing at the Etihad, though City supporters have had a long-running antagonism against UEFA and boo the Champions League anthem that is played before kick-off.
Guardiola has seen the empty seats during group play both this term and last — City have averaged nearly 10,000 shy of a sellout in their 55,000-seat stadium in the last four home Champions League contests in group play — and noted before the reverse fixture to The Times that “still we don’t have that feeling, the feeling that the fans are pushing that we have to win the Champions League.”
City are also trying to avoid a dubious feat, as a loss would make them the first English side to lose four consecutive Champions League home contests. They lost what was essentially a dead second-leg rubber to Basel before their quarterfinal exit at the hands of Liverpool and lost to Lyon to open group play this term.
Shakhtar Donetsk continues to rule the Ukrainian Premier League and have won their three matches since losing at home to City. They are coming off a 2-1 victory over Dynamo Kyiv last weekend that extended their lead atop the table to eight points through 14 matches.
After conceding late in the first half to Mykola Shaparenko, Junior Moraes pulled Shakhtar level nine minutes after the interval against his former team and Viktor Kovalenko scored a 95th-minute winner against a 10-man Kyiv side in a testy match that saw nine yellow cards issued in total along with the double booking of defender Tomasz Kedziora three minutes before Kovalenko’s winner.
“All the players did well today,” the 22-year-old Kovalenko told the club’s official website. “In the scoring episode, I received the ball having the possibility to net one, and it worked, I reckon, just spectacularly. This may be one of my most beautiful goals for Shakhtar.”
Moraes has 11 goals in 13 matches across all competitions and seven in his last eight games. Marlos is second with six goals but is looking to end a five-match scoring drought.
Per Ladbrokes, City are overwhelming favourites to break their duck at home and have 1/10 odds to claim all three points. Even a draw seems unlikely to oddsmakers at 17/2, while Shakhtar are 25/1 underdogs to pull off an upset that would turn the group into chaos.
City are also expected to pump a few goals past Andriy Pyatov, getting 2/5 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals scored. They are a 7/2 pick to win either 1-0 or 2-0, and a low-scoring draw checks in at 11/1. A 2-2 deadlock or higher is 28/1, while the Shakhtar longshots read as: 45/1 with a victory over 2.5 goals and 60/1 for a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline.
Aguero leads a lengthy list of nine City players who are more likely to score the first goal of the match before top Shakhtar option Moraes at 14/1. Aguero is listed at 23/10 despite the strong likelihood he might not start, while potential replacement Jesus is the second choice at 13/5. Sterling and Mahrez are together at 7/2, with Leroy Sane lurking behind them at 9/2.
Aguero, Jesus, Sterling, and Mahrez are all better than even money to score during the course of the match, ranging from Aguero at 4/9 to Mahrez at 10/11. Sane is just off even money at 6/5, and both Silvas are better than 2/1 to score as Bernardo is 7/4 and David is 9/5. Moraes again is Shakhtar’s top option at 10/3. with Marlos second-best at 5/1.
What was supposed to be a straightforward match in which City all but assure themselves of advancing and overturn their rotation enough to have as many first-choice players available for the Manchester derby has turned into something much larger and perhaps more nefarious if the findings alleged in the Der Spiegel are true.
There may not be any short-term ramifications as City try to progress further than last year’s quarterfinal exit, but there could be very serious and lasting long-term repercussions for the club should Europe’s governing soccer body and even the English FA come down with punitive measures.
For Guardiola, the potential distraction of the article comes at the worst possible time with these two matches, more so for Sunday’s tilt versus United. For this match, however, it is a chance for Jesus and Mahrez to get themselves a good lather to be available for Sunday’s contest, and maybe give Aguero and Ilkay Gundogan a late run-out. Of course, Guardiola might go all guns blazing for this match as a response for the article, and create an insurmountable goal difference for the last two matches.
Shakhtar’s primary goal will be to limit the damage and potentially steal a late marker after the result is decided. That, however, would also be wildly optimistic considering City played their best match of the three in the Ukraine a fortnight ago and can now put them to the sword at home.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 5, Shakhtar Donetsk 0.