Not invincible but still certainly imposing, the hunted are the hunters Saturday when reigning champions and second-place Manchester City host Everton at the Etihad.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Citizens (13-2-1) had little time to wallow after their first loss domestically last weekend – a 2-0 setback at Chelsea that ended a seven-match winning streak in league play – as they needed a result Wednesday against Hoffenheim to wrap up the top spot in Group E of the Champions League.
Pep Guardiola’s team got that result – a 2-1 victory at home over the German side – but not without some effort as Leroy Sane continued his blistering form with a brace on either side of halftime to negate a first-half penalty by Andrej Kramaric.
Sane’s first was a world-class free kick in first-half stoppage time, and just after the hour, the Germany international finished a 1-2 with Raheem Sterling for his fifth goal in six matches across all competitions.
Manchester City have a limited field of potential opponents in the round of 16 in February, with the toughest of the four they can draw Friday being notoriously stubborn out and Spanish side Atletico Madrid. Other possible matchups could be against 2018 semifinalists and Serie A side AS Roma, German outfit Schalke 04 and Dutch club Ajax.
“Incredible. Today finished group stage in best way,” Guardiola said post-match as City returned to the Champions League knockout rounds for the sixth straight year. “Best 16 teams in Europe. We try to arrive in February in the best condition with players fit.
“Big compliment for this group because every group is tough, and we did it so well.”
As Sane stole the headlines, teenager Phil Foden caught the eye of many as he was given a rare start by Guardiola. The 18-year-old looked composed on the ball and was the focal point of bright, positive play throughout the match in the midfield as England’s pipeline of youth is proving deeper than the 23 who powered the Three Lions to the World Cup semifinals in the summer.
“In general over 90 minutes, Phil was outstanding,” Guardiola beamed. “I never had doubts. The quality he has with the ball. Looks skinny but really strong. Huge talent. England has a diamond. Against German teams it is so demanding, but he played like a man.”
Foden, though, still has to fight to even stay on the bench for City in Premier League play, and City discovered they have a fight on their hands to repeat as champions. This is the first time since Sept. 29 the Citizens are entering play not atop the table as Liverpool moved one point ahead of them.
Guardiola rotated a good portion of his side midweek, some out of protection as midfielder Fernandinho was one yellow card away from being forced to sit out the first-leg round of 16 tie. Sergio Aguero also had that problem but was also not 100 percent due to an adductor injury.
City are also still without winger Kevin De Bruyne, who is close to a return, but fellow playmaker David Silva could be out until at least the new year with a hamstring injury. Kyle Walker played the second half at right back after John Stones played 45 minutes out of position there with Nicolas Otamendi getting the call in central defence.
The squad rotation figures to continue as the fixtures come thick and fast between now and the new year, with City’s next midweek clash a Carabao Cup quarterfinal matchup at Leicester City on Tuesday.
Everton (6-6-4) are seventh in the table and are coming off back-to-back draws following their 2-2 stalemate Monday against Watford in the “Silva Derby.” Lucas Digne’s free kick in the 96th minute bent around the wall and inside the left post, giving the Toffees a share of the points in the first match between the teams since current coach Marco Silva was sacked by Watford in January.
Richarlison, who reunited with Silva in the summer from Watford, scored the other goal for Everton. The Toffees, though, were second-best for large stretches of the match and watched Gylfi Sigurdsson have a 67th minute penalty stopped by Ben Foster before Digne rescued them with his first goal since joining the club.
“He is settling in really fast,” Silva told the club’s official website about Digne, who leads the Premier League with 128 crosses from his left back spot. “In my opinion, when you are a really good football player – and he is – when you are a really focused player – and he is – it is easy to understand (why Digne has swiftly adapted to Premier League football).
“He comes to USM Finch Farm every day to work really hard and he is a very good professional, with high quality. He is playing so well, improving every time, not just in our defensive process … he is a really important player in our offensive process as well from Barcelona this summer.”
With yet another road contest against one of the Big Six, the talk involving Everton inevitably returns once more to the Toffees in search of that culture-changing road victory to kick onto the next level.
The winless drought at Anfield, Stamford Bridge, Emirates, Wembley/White Hart Lane, Old Trafford and the Etihad has reached 32 matches (0-10-22) after their heartbreaking Merseyside Derby loss to Liverpool a fortnight ago. Bryan Oviedo’s 86th-minute winner at Old Trafford on Dec. 4, 2013, remains the last such victorious moment on one of these grounds for the Toffees.
This is already Everton’s fifth match at the six sites this term, and while they have taken only one point from the previous four, it is clear Silva has at least got the Toffees to believe they can get a result in these contests since they have given as good as they’ve gotten in those matches. Additionally, one of those 10 draws came in last season’s corresponding fixture, though it can be argued catching City on the second match day of the season was beneficial to Everton’s cause.
The Toffees are winless in their last eight trips (0-4-4) to the blue side of Manchester since a 2-1 victory Dec. 20, 2010, in which Tim Cahill and Leighton Baines scored in the first 19 minutes. Everton then held out with 10 men for the final half-hour after a red card to Victor Anichebe and conceding an own goal through Phil Jagielka.
A 10-man City held Everton to a 1-1 draw last term as Sterling equalised eight minutes from time. Wayne Rooney had given the Toffees – who also finished with 10 men after Morgan Schneiderlin picked up his second yellow on 88 minutes – a lead late in the first half. Walker had gotten his marching orders before intermission for two yellow cards in a three-minute span.
Sterling’s goals in both matchups last season are his only two in 10 career matchups with Everton.
Per Bet 365, City are strong 2/9 favourites to pick up three points in the first match of the weekend and keep the heat on Liverpool. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 13/2, and Everton are 12/1 longshots to deal the Citizens back-to-back losses in league play for the first time since defeats to Chelsea and Leicester City on Dec. 3 and 10, 2016.
Oddsmakers are expecting goals, with 4/11 odds on the teams combining to score more than 2.5 goals compared to 11/5 odds for a defensive struggle to break out at the Etihad. There are 3/4 odds for both teams to score at least one goal, while there is even money on a clean sheet in either direction. City have not been held without a goal in back-to-back league matches since a draw at Norwich City and loss to Manchester United on March 12 and 20, 2016.
With the possibility of Aguero returning to lead the line, the former Argentina international has been installed as the frontrunner to open the scoring at 12/5. Gabriel Jesus is a 3/1 pick, while Sterling (9/2), Riyad Mahrez (5/1) and Sane (6/1) round out the top five. Despite his fine recent form, Richarlison is joint-11th on the list for first-goal honours with teammate Cenk Tosun at 12/1. Sigurdsson, Everton’s designed penalty taker, is listed at 18/1.
Aguero (4/9), Jesus (4/7) and Sterling (20/21) are all expected to score in this match per the odds for an any-time goal, while Mahrez (21/20) and Sane (13/10) are just off that standard. Brahim Diaz, Felix Nmecha and Bernardo Silva are lumped together at 15/8, while Foden and Gundogan are 11/4.
Richarlison and Tosun are again joint-top picks for Everton at 3/1, followed by Dominic Calvert-Lewin (7/2) and Theo Walcott (4/1), with Sigurdsson a step back at 9/2.
To put City’s Premier League dominance prior to last weekend’s loss to Chelsea, consider the Citizens had trailed for all of 12 minutes through 15 matches, and that was on a goal by Wolverhampton that VAR would have disallowed. Even with the loss to Chelsea, Man City have still trailed more in their six Champions League matches than they have in 16 league contests.
The tweak by Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri to use Eden Hazard as a false No. 9 in his 4-3-3 formation versus City will undoubtedly spring copycat versions up and down England (and Wales for you Cardiff City readers), yet how many have the personnel to pull off such a shift? That brings us to the second half of this “revelation” … are City opponents willing to risk ceding possession so quickly by hoofing the ball up the pitch and letting their speedsters on the wings or in the middle give chase?
Is it a better plan than sitting in two low banks and hoping to catch out City on the counter stringing two or three passes to get through the middle of the pitch? It’s a debate that will be pondered across opposing locker rooms, but again, not many teams have that kind of personnel.
Everton do not have that type of personnel unless Silva is willing to move Richarlison back to the left wing spot where he started the season and play Dominic Calvert-Lewin over Tosun to lead the line in his 4-2-3-1 set-up. The Toffees, though, have also been credible enough against the Big Six this season that Silva will not gimmick his way through these 90 minutes. That is a testament to the culture change he has made, even if some of the recent results have been one point instead of three.
What is good about this Everton side is they are willing to throw a punch against the big boys. It can be argued the only match of the four against the perennials where the Toffees struggled was at Old Trafford, and even that was a 2-1 loss in which it was more spurning quality scoring chances than being run off the pitch by Manchester United.
They scrapped hard with Chelsea to nick a point at Stamford Bridge and were arguably seconds from a point at Anfield before the crossbar conspired against Jordan Pickford. It may very well be the case City — even short-handed City — are an entirely different animal at this point in time and do run Everton out of the Etihad. But it feels more likely Everton will at least make Guardiola’s side earn their three points.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 3, Everton 1.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 17 PREVIEWS:
Huddersfield Town (2-4-10) vs. Newcastle United (3-4-9)
Tottenham Hotspur (12-0-4) vs. Burnley (3-3-10)
Wolverhampton (6-4-6) vs. Bournemouth (7-2-7)
Liverpool (13-3-0) vs. Manchester United (7-5-4)