A schedule change to accommodate one trophy run may result in altering a second in a positive way for Manchester City, who can take the provisional lead in the Premier League race Wednesday with a victory over Everton at Goodison Park.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
For the second time in three matches, City (19-2-4) were able to gain ground on front-runners Liverpool. The reigning champions did their part with a clinical 3-1 win over Arsenal on Sunday thanks to a hat trick from Sergio Aguero, and former Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini did his old team a favour as his West Ham side held the Reds to a 1-1 draw Monday.
The gap between the sides is now three points, but with City’s superior goal difference, claiming three points would put them atop the table – albeit having played one more match than Liverpool. This midweek clash was scheduled following Manchester City reaching the Carabao Cup final, which will be played Feb. 24 against Chelsea at Wembley Stadium.
“We now rest and prepare for Goodison Park. I cannot deny I would want West Ham to beat Liverpool – Liverpool would want Arsenal to beat us,” Guardiola told City’s official website after Sunday’s win. “Of course, we have to win. After the Newcastle defeat everyone thought we would go seven behind. A lot of things will happen between now and the end of the season. We scored first and kept trying for more, that’s the biggest lesson we can learn.
“Many things can happen. If it’s seven points, it’s difficult but football isn’t like this. Now it’s two, tomorrow could be three or five again. We have to go to Goodison and get three more points.”
Aguero’s hat trick was his 10th in the Premier League, leaving him one shy of Alan Shearer’s all-time mark, and his 14th overall for City. The Argentina international – who is also believed to be the first player in Premier League history to score in the opening minute of back-to-back matches – will become the club’s all-time leading scorer in league play with his next goal as he currently shares the mark of 157 with Tommy Johnson and Eric Brook.
“It wasn’t just that he scored three goals but for how he tried, fought, and worked backwards. He gave absolutely everything for the team,” Guardiola told the Manchester Evening News, batting back the chatter that he and Aguero have not seen eye to eye since the managers’ arrival to City in 2016.
“Of course he doesn’t have the energy of Gabriel (Jesus) or Bernardo (Silva) but every player has his own quality. I judge the intentions, not the results and the intentions from Sergio was always perfect since we were together.”
Things at Goodison Park, however, are far from perfect. Everton (9-6-10) have a tenuous hold on a top-half spot in the table, leading Bournemouth on goal difference for ninth while also leading Leicester City and West Ham United by one point.
The inability for the Toffees to kick on and meet the expectations that came with Marco Silva’s arrival as manager and the opening of the pursestrings by Everton owner Farhad Moshiri in recent transfer windows have not had the desired effect in climbing up the table.
Silva’s team have taken just nine points form their last nine league matches (3-0-6), with their struggles laid bare by a 3-1 home loss to promoted Wolverhampton on Saturday, a defeat that gave the Wolves the inside track for seventh – and a potential Europa League qualifying round spot – next season.
Andre Gomes gave Everton a brief spark with an equaliser before the half-hour, but a goal conceded just before halftime sucked the life out of the park. Adding to the misery was the game being held up for several minutes in the second half as a black cat found its way onto the pitch and slunk about, almost mocking supporters who did not need another harbinger of bad luck.
“It is now our obligation to turn things to our favour to give something back, firstly to ourselves but of course to our fans,” Silva told the club’s official website. “Now is not the moment to find excuses. Now it is the moment to find solutions. Many things went wrong against Wolves. When you lose like that, playing at home, and giving easy things to our opponent, it is a tough afternoon.
“Wolves were better than us. But when I can see how we lost the game – making it too easy – it is really tough for me and for us as a team.”
This added game heaps the pressure on Everton in a week of what could have huge consequences both short and long-term for the blue portion of Merseyside. After this match, Silva and striker Richarlison make their return to Vicarage Road to face former club Watford on Saturday in what will undoubtedly be a highly charged and contentious atmosphere.
One good piece of news for Silva is he will have left back Lucas Digne available. The France international, who leads the Premier League with 184 crosses, sat out Saturday’s loss due to a red card given in Everton’s 1-0 win over Huddersfield Town on Jan. 29.
Digne, who is also a threat on set pieces, could help Everton exploit one of City’s few weaknesses as the Premier League champions have conceded half of their 20 goals in league play on set pieces.
Silva did not offer whether Idrissa Gueye will be back in the first XI. The Toffees manager held out the Senegal international following the club’s rejection of multiple offers by Paris-Saint Germain for the central midfielder before the close of the January transfer window, including the largest one for a reported £26.2 million hours before the deadline.
Aguero did not play in the reverse fixture due to injury, but Gabriel Jesus answered the call with a brace on either side of halftime in a 3-1 home win in mid-December. Dominic Calvert-Lewin gave the Toffees hope of nicking one point on 65 minutes, but Raheem Sterling restored City’s two-goal lead four minutes later shortly after his introduction as a substitute.
City are 3-3-1 in their last seven games in all competitions versus Everton, but Goodison Park has not been a happy hunting ground for them. The Citizens are 3-1-5 in their last nine league matches at Everton, including a 4-0 loss in Guardiola’s first visit in 2016-17 that is still his worst Premier League loss since arriving at City.
Per Bet365, City are 1/3 favourites to be atop the Premier League table come the final whistle, while Everton are 17/2 underdogs to claim a shock win based on their current form. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 19/4.
Oddsmakers are expecting goals, with the over of 2.5 goals a heavy favourite at 1/2 odds compared to 13/8 odds to finish below 2.5 for the first time in four overall matchups between the clubs at Goodison Park. The odds of both teams scoring are 4/5, edging out the odds for at least one clean sheet at 19/20.
For the first goal of the match, Aguero is an obvious favourite at 5/2 as he has a chance to score in the opening minute for a third straight contest. Jesus is a clear-cut second at 10/3 after doing so in the reverse fixture, while City’s cadre of wingers — Sterling, Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez are all 9/2. City playmakers David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are another step back at 8/1 before Richarlison appears as Everton’s top pick at 10/1 to give the hosts a 1-0 lead.
Aguero (4/7) and Jesus (4/5) are both better than even money to score over the course of 90 minutes, and City’s trio of wingers are just off that standard at 11/10. Silva and De Bruyne are both 21/10 options, while Richarlison is again the Toffees’ top choice at 11/4.
Tosun is a 3/1 pick for Everton, while Calvert-Lewin (7/2) and Gylfi Sigurdsson (4/1) complete the list for the most likely suspects for a Toffees goal.
City proved that their loss to Newcastle United was a blip more than anything else, getting back on track with a clinical win over Arsenal. While there was a wobble with the Gunners gaining an equaliser, the key component that made the victory “clincal” was the combined distance on Aguero’s three goals — with two of them coming inside the six-yard box and the third right on the line of it.
Another part was the unselfish play that led to all three goals — there were passes that led to the passes that were credited as assists. It is the kind of unselfish play and build-up that made City imperious champions last term, and something they need to get continue if they are to fight off Liverpool and lift the Premier League trophy for a second straight May.
The quick turnaround will test City’s depth to a degree, but after holding out both Sane and Mahrez from the starting XI versus Arsenal, as well as the choice of sticking with Aguero or turning back to Jesus given his success in the reverse fixture, Guardiola and company appear to be in fine form to make it 10 wins in 11 matches across all competitions.
For Everton, one has to wonder whether this week will turn into a referendum for Silva. While there is no shame in losing to Wolverhampton considering they are rounding into the team most everyone thought they would be as one of the best promoted sides of the Premier League era, the dysfunction and palace intrigue continue to dominate the Toffees storyline.
That will kick into high gear at the final whistle regardless as Silva Bowl 2.0 takes place at Vicarage Road on the weekend. But Everton need to have some sort of response, some sort of fight back to claim dignity and respectability lest the last 12 matches descend into a chaotic farce similar to what it was early last season in the final days of Ronald Koeman.
Silva opted for a five-man backline in the reverse fixture against City, though the uncertainty of Yerry Mina’s availability may scuttle that plan for a second such match. One possibility is to add Morgan Schneiderlin as that third centre back.
Additionally, Gueye missed the first meeting through injury, which makes it possible Silva will keep his traditional 4-2-3-1 formation should he deem the Senegal man 100 percent ready to contribute.
Given how Cenk Tosun has largely failed to impress leading the line of late, it may be possible Calvert-Lewin gets a chance to try and stretch City’s back line with his pace. Silva has many things to consider for his first XI in this match, and getting each individual decision right along with its potential interplay with other ones he makes will go a long way in determining if Everton can nick at least one point.
(Narrator’s voice: Everton will most likely not be able to nick at least one point)
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Everton 1, Manchester City 4.