Though Manchester City will be playing for the provisional lead in the Premier League on Sunday – depending on the results of Liverpool’s match against Bournemouth the day before – the reigning champions do have an opportunity to narrow the list of contenders to three if they beat fourth-place Chelsea in a crunch encounter at the Etihad.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Citizens (20-2-4) are ahead of the Reds on goal difference, but Liverpool has a match in hand that will be played Feb. 24 at Old Trafford – the same day Pep Guardiola’s side play Chelsea once more in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley Stadium. The cat-and-mouse game between City and Liverpool began in earnest Wednesday, with City winning 2-0 at Everton as they got stoppage-time goals from Aymeric Laporte in the first half and Gabriel Jesus in the second.
The victory showed City have staying power for the long haul, a run that started with their 2-1 victory over Liverpool on Jan. 3 that re-ignited the title race on a day when the Reds could have opened a 10-point lead on Guardiola’s side. Instead, City have everything – and everything means all four trophies – to play for over these next four months.
Guardiola, though, is wary of Chelsea (15-5-5), who dealt City their first league loss in the reverse fixture Dec. 8 at Stamford Bridge. Though the Pensioners are 12 points behind City and Liverpool, both they and Manchester City are embarking on a rare gauntlet – both teams are playing a league match, League Cup match, FA Cup match and European Cup match (Champions League for City, Europa League for Chelsea) among their next four contests.
“As a spectator and coach I try to figure out what the manager is trying to do,” Guardiola said at his Friday press conference. “I see Chelsea and I can understand what they want to do. And after I see them, they do it. And when you see the team, the players that they have, the bench – it is Chelsea my friend. The best strikers in the world are there, the midfielders there are the best in the world, good goalkeeper, experienced defenders.
“They know exactly what they want to do. Tomorrow is a final for us. The season for them is exceptional – final of the Carabao Cup, Europa League through and in the Premier League they are there, even if people don’t believe it. They have a chance to be champions – nine points (behind) but a lot of games to play.”
It is believed to be the first time a Premier League team since the 2007-08 Chelsea team will run this gauntlet – a season that ended up with no trophies for the London side as they were eliminated in the sixth round of the FA Cup, were runners-up in the League Cup and second-best to Manchester United in the Premier League and Champions League.
Guardiola confirmed centre back Vincent Kompany and left back Benjamin Mendy are unavailable for this match due to injury. The City boss has shuffled his back line in the previous two matches, dropping John Stones against Arsenal for a central pairing of Nicolas Otamendi and central midfielder Fernandinho and moving Laporte to left back from central defence for the wins over Arsenal and Everton while having Stones and Otamendi in the spine of the back four versus Everton.
The flexibility of moving Laporte and not having Mendy means Guardiola may still be on the fence regarding Danilo and Kyle Walker at right back or possibly flipping Danilo to left back and letting Walker roam in his natural spot at right back.
Guardiola likely will field a midfield of David Silva, Fernandinho, and Kevin De Bruyne. Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling are expected to flank Sergio Aguero, with Guardiola countering on the Argentina international to continue producing in big moments – Aguero has 40 goals in 63 matches against Big Six sides.
“It is what it is. The big players need to be there in the big moments and he did it, time and time again,” Guardiola said of Aguero, whose next league goal will make him City’s all-time leader in that category. “Hopefully he can continue. The game belongs to the players. The big games belong to special players.
“That is what he is about. When the best tennis players need to save a break, they serve an ace. Big clubs need this kind of player.”
Chelsea have been more uneven after their blazing start under Sarri and experienced both extremes of winning and losing in their last 180 minutes. After being run off the pitch at Vitality Stadium in the final 45 minutes of a 4-0 thumping to Bournemouth – a loss so chastening Sarri threw his assistants out of the locker room and held a 50-minute post-match meeting with his players – the Blues responded with a 5-0 hiding of last-place Huddersfield Town last weekend.
January signing Gonzalo Higuain opened his account with a brace on either side of halftime, while Eden Hazard did likewise to give him 15 goals in all competitions on the season. David Luiz added gloss to the scoreline with a late fifth as Chelsea reclaimed fourth in the table as part of their three-team tango with Manchester United and Arsenal for that final Champions League berth.
Sarri refused to be drawn into title talk, noting at his Friday press conference “in the Premier League there is a fight between Liverpool and Man City” before adding he felt “City are the best team in Europe.” Still, after a 2-0 victory in the reverse fixture on goals by N’Golo Kante and Luiz, the Italian manager was optimistic his team could again go toe-to-toe with the reigning champions.
“Maybe we deserved to win in the second half,” Sarri said. “In that match we defended really very well, because they only had three goal opportunities, no more, and it’s not easy to give them only three or four opportunities. At home they have scored 43 goals in 13 matches, more than three on average, so we need to defend very well.
“We need to be very fast when we recover the ball, because if you are first to the lost ball they are able to press very well, and it’s very difficult to exit the situation. If we are able to do that, we can find spaces, but it will be very difficult.”
One notable change to Sarri’s 4-3-3 formation compared to December will be Higuain as a true centre-forward. Sarri deployed Hazard as a false nine, something that was mirrored by Guardiola with Sterling because Aguero missed the match through injury. With Higuain’s presence, Hazard moves to his preferred spot on the left wing, leaving Sarri to choose between Pedro and Willian on the right flank.
Hazard set up both goals in the reverse fixture, one a weighted pass Kante rifled past Ederson from 15 yards just under the crossbar, and then providing a corner kick Luiz got highest to nod home with 12 minutes remaining.
Chelsea are seeking their second double over City in three seasons after Guardiola turned the trick in last term’s historic run to the Premier League title. The Citizens, though, are 7-1-2 in their last 10 home matches in all competitions versus the Pensioners.
Bernardo Silva’s goal for City just after the restart separated the sides in last season’s corresponding fixture.
Per Bet365, Manchester City are 1/2 favourites to claim all three points and at worst be level with Liverpool on points once more, while Chelsea are 6/1 underdogs to pull off the double. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 15/4.
Oddsmakers are expecting more goals than the reverse fixture, with 8/13 odds on the clubs clearing the 2.5-goals threshold compared to 13/10 to stay under it once more. The odds of both teams scoring at least once is 3/4 compared to even money for at least one clean sheet.
Aguero is a clear-cut favourite to score the first goal of the match at 11/4, followed by Jesus at 7/2. City’s trio of wingers — Sane, Sterling, and Riyad Mahrez — are all listed at 5/1 before Higuain (8/1) and Hazard (17/2) break up the City monopoly on the top spots. David Silva and De Bruyne are both 9/1 options to make it 1-0 for the hosts, tailed by Bernado Silva and Chelsea’s other centre-forward Olivier Giroud at 10/1.
Aguero’s big-match production is evident in his odds for a goal over the 90 minutes at 4/6, with Jesus the only other player better than even money at 10/11. The City wingers follow again at 11/8, with Higuain a 12/5 option followed by Hazard at 5/2. David Silva and De Bruyne are 11/4 picks, with Bernardo Silva and Giroud lurking at 3/1.
A quartet of players — Ilkay Gundogan, Willian, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Phil Foden are all another step back at 15/4.
Even with a 5-0 romp over Huddersfield Town in their last match, the question still begs of Chelsea — are they a fragile side? By nature, Sarri is so manic that he — like his predecessor Antonio Conte — can make coffee nervous on any given match day. While the inquest was shut off after a victory that ticked off all the boxes, the most important one being Higuain scoring goals, it does remain to see how the Pensioners respond to being punched in the mouth.
Though City was made to graft for their goals at Goodison Park, one finally gets the sense it is a side where the players are quietly confident ahead of the fight that awaits. Guardiola was able to experiment with Laporte at left back and Otamendi in central defence the last two matches, and with Mendy ruled out for this match, he’s hedging 180 minutes is enough play for Otamendi to be trusted in a colossally large spot.
It’s an interesting gamble considering he has a functional wide back in Danilo, even if his preferred side is right. And yes, this space knows Laporte has experience at left back. It’s just still curious timing to try it NOW with so much at stake.
The first meeting was interesting in that Chelsea rope-a-doped City for the first 45 minutes before essentially getting lucky on a long ball sent by Luiz that eventually found its way to Hazard, who sent a perfect pass to Kante for the industrious France international to hit flush with venom past Ederson. City were second-best that second half, and Chelsea’s second was deserved with Luiz’s header.
This figures to be a more straightforward match this time. Sarri has a preferred centre-forward in Higuain; Guardiola has his best centre-forward available in Aguero. The man they call “Kun” has a devastating track record against Chelsea with 10 goals in 14 career matchups, including a match-winner in the 2013 FA Cup semifinal and a hat trick at Stamford Bridge late in 2015-16 when Chelsea’s title defence had lone gone off the rails.
Sarri made an interesting point about being the first to recover the ball to exit the area before City have time to press and harry because it sounds like as long as Chelsea are in the shape he prefers, the Chelsea boss makes it sound he would be content ceding possession in non-vital areas to be able to strike on the counter like they did for the first goal in the reverse fixture.
Both teams have had recent hiccups and both have very ambitious schedules ahead of them. Guardiola is right in the sense Chelsea should be treating this as a final because anything other than a win essentially eliminates the Londoners from the title race. But while Guardiola said all the right things this week and gave his proper deference to his counterpart and opponents, the knives are coming out for this one, and City will have turned this into a three-team race.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 3, Chelsea 1.