2018-19 EPL Match Day 21 Preview — Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)

Last season’s Manchester City side are considered one of the best all-time in English football history. Yet if the defending champions cannot at least draw current table-toppers Liverpool at the Etihad on Thursday, there is the very real chance they could be second to the Reds in history’s annals come May.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The first 100-point side in Premier League history, Manchester City (15-2-3) set a host of league records as they won the title by 19 points over eternal rivals Manchester United. Liverpool were a respectable fourth but gained plaudits by eliminating City over two legs in the Champions League quarterfinals en route to a runners-up finish to Real Madrid.

Liverpool (17-3-0) addressed their shortcomings in the offseason, most notably between the sticks with the acquisition of AS Roma keeper Alisson, and also added bargain-signing Xherdan Shaqiri as a change-of-pace offensive option. Midfield newcomers Fabinho and Naby Keita have teamed with towering centre back Virgil Van Dijk to transform Liverpool from a team who needed to outscore opponents to one who can suffocate them if needed.

“City is a game that we want to win,” Van Dijk told Liverpool’s official website. “It will be very hard, very tough, but for them as well. It’s going be a good match, but it is not a decisive game or something like that. We are not going to treat it different to any other.

“We will be prepared for a very tough game. Confidence is definitely here, but it can change over a couple of games. We won’t get carried away. We need to keep doing what we have been doing.”

Jurgen Klopp’s front-running side have conceded a league-low eight goals – eight fewer than joint-second City and Chelsea. They have recorded 12 clean sheets – already more than the 10 registered in their last serious title challenge under Brendan Rodgers in 2013-14.

Though people are quick to point out Liverpool are the only team leading at Christmas not to win the Premier League title the past nine seasons (2013-14 and 2008-09), Klopp insists his side are only focused on the singular task of winning this contest and not the reward of a seemingly insurmountable 10-point gap a victory would provide.

“We don’t think about the gap, not for a second. What we think about is 54 points – unbelievable, to be honest. That’s really strange and feels strange,” Klopp said, well aware his side are on pace to top 100 points like City did last term. “All we can do is keep going; recover first of all, that’s very important, and then prepare the next game.

“We all know, wow, Man City are a fantastic football team and an away game at City – who can go there and think ‘Probably we will win’? No team in the world, not even us. So we have to go there and try everything to get a result. That’s what we will try.”

Liverpool gained a measure of revenge against one of the three teams to hold them to a draw in the first go-round, swatting Arsenal aside 5-1 at Anfield on Saturday. After falling behind at home for the first time in league play – Liverpool have trailed at Anfield for all of seven minutes in all competitions – Roberto Firmino ended a goal drought that dated back to Dec. 5 with two goals three minutes apart. The second goal by the Brasil international was a slalom through a sea of weak Arsenal challenges before beating Bernd Leno.

Mohamed Salah set up a goal for Sadio Mane before converting a penalty in first-half stoppage time. The Egypt international then made a classy gesture early in the second half, stepping aside for another penalty attempt to let Firmino complete his hat trick. Having Firmino in form is an ominous sign for City considering the trio scored seven of Liverpool’s nine goals in the four matches between the teams last season.

Klopp will once again have to decide between using a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. Fabinho and Keita have a good partnership as defensive midfielders, but the manager does not lack for options as he can also turn to James Milner and Giorginio Wijnaldum in a mix of potential midfield combinations.

Manchester City gained a semblance of their swagger back last time out with a 3-1 victory at Southampton on Sunday. The match swung late in the first half when an own goal by Saints’ James Ward-Prowse off a shot by Rahem Sterling snapped a tie late in the first half, and Sergio Aguero added a tally right before the halftime whistle in stoppage time.

But what gave City confidence for this match was the return of central midfielder Fernandinho, who was sorely missed in their losses to Leicester City and Crystal Palace. The Brasil international served as a disruptive force in repelling Southampton’s attacks, which in turn allowed City’s attack to pour forward with their usual menace as David Silva scored his first goal since returning from injury and his ninth in all competitions.

Aguero has been a pest to Liverpool, especially at the Etihad – the Argentina international has scored in all six home games versus the Reds for City. One goal shy of 250 for his career, Aguero is willing to give Liverpool their due but also wants his side to be true to themselves in this crunch clash.

“Liverpool’s growth as a team can be tracked from a few years back,” the striker noted to City’s official website. “Their showing in the Champions League was a testament of that, and they are performing very well this Premier League season.

“But our focus should be on our own game. We are confident in our playing style and we believe it’s the most effective to lead us to victory. There’s no denying it is a huge game for both clubs. Direct clashes between leading teams have a major impact towards the end of the season.”

City manager Pep Guardiola has some injury concerns, most notably with attacking midfielder Kevin De Bruyne as he was held out of Sunday’s match as a precaution with a knock. Tactically, Guardiola must figure out who he wants at left back with Fabian Delph serving the second of his three-match ban for a red card on Boxing Day.

Oleksandr Zinchenko looked out of his depth there versus Southampton, getting dispossessed on the play that led directly to Southampton’s goal. Guardiola could move Danilo from right back to left while restoring Kyle Walker to his usual spot at right back.

If De Bruyne cannot play, Bernardo Silva would likely be on the right of Fernandinho in City’s 4-3-3 set-up.

The teams played to a cagey scoreless draw at Anfield, though City let Liverpool off the hook on 86 minutes when Riyad Mahrez blasted his penalty into the crowd on the Anfield End. For all the offensive fireworks these clubs provide, both teams rarely pushed their wide backs forward as a means of neutralizing the pace of the other.

In addition to the Champions League quarterfinal sweep, Liverpool have been a bogey team for City and are 7-3-1 in the last 11 overall meetings between the clubs. The Citizens’ lone win was a 5-0 thrashing of 10-man Liverpool at home last term, with Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane bagging braces after Mane was given a straight red card on 37 minutes for a reckless challenge on City keeper Ederson.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Manchester City are even-money favourites to deal Liverpool their first loss, while the Reds are 12/5 underdogs to claim all three points and create a seemingly insurmountable 10-point gap between the sides. There are 11/4 odds on the teams splitting the points to maintain the status quo.

The scoreless draw in the reverse fixture has put no fear in oddsmakers expecting goals, with 8/15 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 6/4 odds for another such result under the threshold. There are 1/2 odds for both teams to score in this contest compared to 6/4 odds on one of them being held off the scoreboard for the second time this season.

Aguero leads the line for first goal-scorer options at 10/3, trailed by Jesus (9/2). Salah rounds out the top three at 5/1, with understudy Daniel Sturridge 11/2 and City attacking winger Sterling at 6/1. Mahrez and Divock Origi are both 7/1 options, with Liverpool attacking players Firmino and Mane are both at 15/2. City winger Sane is 8/1, and Shaqiri is a step back at 9/1.

Despite the top-draw defences of both sides, Aguero does rate better than even money to score over the course of 90 minutes with 4/5 odds, while Jesus is an 11/10 pick and Salah checks in at 5/4. Sturridge (7/5) and Sterling (8/5) round out the top five, while Origi and Mahrez are paired together at 15/8. Mane and Firmino also rate as equals at 2/1, with Sane (11/5) and Shaqiri (5/2) a step back. David Silva and De Bruyne are both 11/4 picks to bag a goal.

PREDICTION

Here is the £64,000 question: Is the scoreless draw in October between the two sides the anomaly of their last five matches or the expected outcome?

The 5-0 City rout in last season’s corresponding fixture has to be taken with an asterisk since Liverpool played nearly two-thirds of the match with 10 men and the score was only 1-0 when Mane was sent off. The reverse fixture at Anfield in 2017-18 was marked by a nine-minute thunderclap of three Liverpool goals in the second half before City frantically scrambled to get two back and nearly steal a point.

What seems abundantly clear, however, is Klopp is in the head of the usually unflappable Guardiola. There is still the lament for Guardiola not staying true to his ethos in last season’s first-leg Champions League tie at Anfield in choosing Ilkay Gundogan over Sterling and paying the heaviest of prices with a goal deficit too large to overcome at the Etihad.

In October, Guardiola was content to defuse Liverpool. The result was a dour match in which there were 13 shots combined. To put that number in perspective, consider Klopp’s team alone have attempted 13 or more shots in 14 of their 20 league contests while City have unloaded 13 or more in all but three league contests.

This time, City cannot afford to sit back. Must it be an all-out attack from kickoff? No. But there is most certainly going to be an urgency to finding a goal first. To fall behind 0-1 in this contest early could very well be game over, title race over because Liverpool can carve open any team on the counter regardless of quality of opponent.

While the above projects Liverpool to the 4-2-3-1 set-up Klopp has veered to of late in league play, it would not be all that surprising to see him revert to the 4-3-3 for two reasons. One is another midfielder — most likely James Milner if 100 percent — to help check on David Silva and/or De Bruyne should the latter be available for selection or even a start.

The second, though, is that formation lets Salah be the person who tries to run City’s left back — most likely Danilo — into the ground as opposed to having the Egypt international lead the line with Shaqiri on the wing. It also lets Klopp keep some of his powder dry with Shaqiri being the first option off the bench in the event he has find an equaliser in the final 15-20 minutes.

Also in the spotlight to a degree for Liverpool will be right back Trent Alexander-Arnold, who watched the reverse fixture from the bench as Joe Gomez got the start. The 20-year-old has quietly evolved into a solid two-way player — though it also helps Liverpool often have overwhelming amounts of possession — after picking up three yellow cards in his first three matches.

This has the feel of a match where graft may be a higher premium than skill. While every player will display it in spades in this contest, it may also be one where Aguero finds yet another way to score against Liverpool — perhaps one that restores a proper Premier League title chase.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 2, Liverpool 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (11-5-4) vs. Fulham (3-5-12)
Chelsea (13-4-3) vs. Southampton (3-6-11)
Wolverhampton (8-5-7) vs. Crystal Palace (5-4-11)
Newcastle United (4-6-10) vs. Manchester United (10-5-5)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 16 Preview — Chelsea (9-4-2) vs. Manchester City (13-2-0)

Even if Maurizio Sarri does not believe his Chelsea side can overtake Manchester City for the Premier League title, his side may be the last obstacle to the Citizens repeating as champions as the sides collide Saturday at Stamford Bridge.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Though the Pensioners (9-4-2) are only 10 points adrift of City (13-2-0), it may as well be a chasm of 10 miles to Sarri, who wrote off his team’s chances after their 2-1 loss at Wolverhampton on Wednesday. Chelsea looked to be in control of the match after Ruben Loftus-Cheek scored on 18 minutes, but two goals by Wolves in rapid-fire fashion in the second half consigned the Blues to their second league loss in three contests and left Sarri at a loss for his team’s fragile psyche.

“We played very well for 55 minutes,” he said post-match. “After their first goal, that was an accident because we were in full control of the match, we were suddenly another team, without the right distances and without our football. I don’t know why.

“I am very worried, not with the result, but for the fact we didn’t react to the first goal of the opponent. We didn’t react at all. I worried about this.”

Sarri’s concession his side will not challenge for the title was not all together surprising considering he downplayed those hopes almost immediately upon his arrival, but to publicly confirm it while currently top four with 23 matches to play was still jarring. It also needs to be remembered he dealt with such a plight in Italy in charge of Napoli as they pushed and pushed Juventus in Serie A without ever finishing ahead of the Bianconeri.

“Manchester City are in another category. We have to play and to fight to be in the top four,” he continued. “The result is very difficult for this, because I know in every match you have to gain points. In the last championship in Italy I lost Serie A with 91 points, so I know very well you have to gain points in every match.

“City are the best team in Europe, maybe the best in the world. They can win the Champions League, but that depends on moments.”

Sarri made five changes from the side who defeated Fulham last weekend, most notably holding out central midfielder Jorginho and centre back David Luiz. Both will likely be restored to the first XI, along with centre-forward Olivier Giroud and winger Pedro for Alvaro Morata and Willian, respectively.

With goals in his last two league matches, Loftus-Cheek could be in line for a second straight start over both Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic on the left side of the midfield in Chelsea’s 4-3-3.

Manchester City are completing their first run-through against the other “Big Six” teams and have taken 10 points from the previous four matches, with their only dropped points a scoreless draw at closest pursuers Liverpool. The Citizens have won seven on the bounce in league play since that deadlock at Anfield and survived a nervy finish in Tuesday’s 2-1 win at Watford.

Leroy Sane continued his torrid run as he and Riyad Mahrez scored City’s goals on either side of halftime, but the Hornets grabbed a late lifeline through Abdoulaye Doucoure after an error by Fabian Delph and pressed for an equaliser before time ran out.

“We started to lose balls and let them have the opportunity to come back,” City boss Pep Guardiola told the club’s official website. “And of course when they score with ten minutes left you suffer. In this league you have to score the third goal and we didn’t do that, that’s why we suffer.”

The suffering, though, has been at a minimum in league play as City are unbeaten in their last 21 (18-3-0) dating back to last term and they have trailed for all of 12 minutes this season. Additionally, their plus-38 goal difference through 15 matches is the largest in top-flight English football history since the 1892-93 Sunderland side amassed a plus-39.

Manchester City are also trying to become the first non-London side to win seven consecutive league matches in the capital. They currently share the mark of six with the 1950-51 Portsmouth side and are 7-1-0 in London since a 2-1 loss at Stamford Bridge on April 5, 2017.

Sane has five goals and four assists in his last six matches, making Mahrez the more likely of the two to be dropped with the expectation Raheem Sterling will return to the first XI. Gabriel Jesus, though, is likely to lead the line for a third straight contest as Sergio Aguero aggravated an adductor injury in training Monday and is doubtful to feature in this contest.

Guardiola also overturned his entire back line at Vicarage Road, though it would not be surprising if three of the four – wide backs Delph and Kyle Walker and centre back John Stones – retain their spots and are joined by Aymeric Laporte.

Manchester City did the double over Chelsea en route to the title last term, returning the favour the Pensioners performed in 2016-17 when they lifted the trophy.

Both matches last season were decided 1-0, with Kevin De Bruyne – missing for this match through injury – making the difference at Stamford Bridge while Guardiola outfoxed Sarri’s predecessor Antonio Conte by using a 3-2-2-3 set-up that kept Chelsea’s back three wide and neutralized their counterattacking possibilities.

City have won two of their last three trips to Stamford Bridge but are just 4-5-12 there in the Premier League era.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, oddsmakers are showing City an impressive amount of respect by installing them as 19/20 favourites to claim all three points. Chelsea are 3/1 underdogs to deal the Citizens their first loss, and there are 14/5 odds for the sides to split the points.

Oddsmakers are also expecting offensive fireworks unlike last season, with 4/6 odds posted on the teams clearing 2.5 goals compared to 6/5 odds for another 1-0 scoreline or less than 2.5 goals total. There are 4/7 odds for both teams to find at least one goal while there are 5/4 odds for at least one clean sheet.

Jesus gets top billing in the first goal-scorer category with 4/1 odds, followed by Hazard and his teammate Sterling at 6/1. Giroud and Mahrez are both 13/2 options, with Sane and Morata a peg back at 15/2. The Silvas are both 10/1 picks, edging out Willian (11/1), while his teammates Pedro and Victor Moses are 12/1 longshots to make it 1-0.

Jesus is also the overall favourite to put one in the back of the net at 11/10, again trailed by Hazard and Sterling — this time at 7/4. The players paired together for first-goal options are the same for one over 90 minutes — Giroud/Mahrez at 15/8, Morata/Sane 11/5, and the Silvas are 3/1. Willian follows at 10/3, with Pedro and Moses both listed at 15/4.

PREDICTION

There were 18 other occasions where it would have been perfectly acceptable to publicly write off your team’s title chances if you are Sarri, even with the caveat you have been downplaying expectations the moment you arrived at Stamford Bridge.

Doing so regarding the reigning title-holders ahead of a match against the reigning title-holders is a fascinatingly obtuse move by a man who has shown an increasing willingness to double-down on his stubbornness with regards to tactics and personnel.

It’s all well and good Sarri is not going to come out of his 4-3-3. It was that way at Napoli, it is this way at Chelsea, and it will continue to be this way as long as he is running the show. Fine, well, good. Then there is the issue of Kante, but even if he is using him in a sub-optimal way — and let’s face it, that’s what this is as the best defensive midfielder on the planet trying to find his moments to join the attack — he is talented enough to adjust, and is doing so from match to match.

The real question here is what does Guardiola have up his sleeve for this match? Last year, his 3-box-3 set-up completely flummoxed Conte, but different formation calls for different tactics, more so without two key pieces in Aguero and De Bruyne. There is no way Guardiola will keep Sterling out of the starting XI, though the Mahrez/Sane dynamic is interesting because Mahrez is the more creative player who can give Marcos Alonso and David Luiz fits on that left side.

For Chelsea, they need to fight for possession in this match, but it also would not be surprising to see City use the same kind of diamond set-up Tottenham did to put Jorginho on an island and make his passes cover longer distances. And like Spurs, City have more than enough pace up front as well as in the midfield with the Silvas and even potentially Ilkay Gundogan.

Chelsea appear to be of two minds at the moment, a side who really have not dealt with too much adversity throughout the term, but one who also appear to be losing that half-step of fluidity when that happens that throws a spanner into the works.

Lastly, Chelsea keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has never been under siege for prolonged periods of time. How he fares in such situations will go a long way in determining just how top-four viable the Pensioners are.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 1, Manchester City 3.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 16 PREVIEWS

Manchester United (6-5-4) vs. Fulham (2-3-10)
Leicester City (6-4-5) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (11-0-4)
Newcastle United (3-4-8) vs. Wolverhampton (5-4-6)
Everton (6-5-4) vs. Watford (6-2-7)

Champions League Match Day 1 preview — Manchester City vs. Lyon

The depth of Manchester City could be tested to a degree Wednesday when they embark on their maiden Champions League match at the Etihad versus French side Lyon.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The reigning Premier League champions have dropped just two points in defence of their historic 2017-18 campaign in which they set an English football record with 100 points. City are in third place, two points off the pace of fellow Champions League participants Liverpool — who eliminated them in the quarterfinals of this tournament last spring — and resurgent Chelsea.

But Champions League glory is something that has eluded both City and manager Pep Guardiola since he left Barcelona in 2012 and stopped at Bayern Munich before coming to England. A serial domestic winner? Yes. But this is now the third try for the Spaniard to match or exceed the high-water mark of City’s semifinal appearance in Manuel Pellegrini’s final season in charge in 2015-16.

That urgency was not discussed much in Monday’s run-up to the match because Guardiola was absent. He is sitting out this contest to serve a one-match ban after being sent off at halftime in City’s second-leg quarterfinal tie against Liverpool last spring. That left assistant Mikael Arteta and defender Aymeric Laporte as the club’s representatives, and Laporte was quick to give the French side and some of his compatriots plaudits.

“I know some of the Lyon players from the French national team,” Laporte told City’s official website. “Sometimes, I try to watch them play too. Lyon are strong. We’ll analyse them intently during the next few days, but as I say, they are a team with great quality and very strong, physically.

“They are used to competing at the highest level, as well. They are been there, among the top teams of the Ligue 1, for many years.”

While Laporte has featured in all six matches for City, including the Community Shield victory over Chelsea, there is a chance he could be dropped for either Vincent Kompany or John Stones. Laporte partnered with Nicolas Otamendi in central defence during last weekend’s 3-0 stroll past Fulham in league play, and while Kompany has not featured since a 1-1 draw versus Wolverhampton on Aug. 25, the Belgium international and City talisman is still an imposing figure at the back.

In attack, City could be without top-choice striker Sergio Aguero, who was forced off with an ankle injury during Saturday’s victory. Gabriel Jesus, who replaced the Argentina international last weekend, would likely get the call to lead the line as part of a 4-3-3 set-up that would include Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez.

Left back Fabian Delph could also be in line for a second straight start after Benjamin Mendy was held out last weekend due to a knee injury. The France international was off to a flying start, registering four assists in the first four matches.

Arteta was quick to shrug off suggestions City are the favourites to win the Champions League, in part due to their bottomless pockets in acquiring the world’s best players in recent years even pre-dating Guardiola’s arrival. Arteta, who was considered a finalist for the Arsenal job that went to former PSG manager Unai Emery, pointed out reigning three-time champions Real Madrid as the side to beat — even with Cristiano Ronaldo moving on to Juventus.

“It has to be Real Madrid, they have something special in this competition, they are the main favourites,” Arteta insisted to The Times. “They won the competition a lot of times, even without Cristiano too, but he was a massive weapon and top scorer every year in that competition.

“I am surprised we are favourites when you have a team that won it three times in a row but that means we are doing things really well. For me we have the best players in the world and I wouldn’t change them for any others. They are absolutely fantastic, the hunger is this group is incredible. People talk about money to spend. But people have to look inside this club, what we have created, it’s phenomenal.”

Lyon are making their 15th Champions League appearance all-time and second showing in three seasons. Les Gones have not progressed out of group play since 2012 and their high-water mark is a semifinal appearance two seasons prior to that.

Bruno Genesio’s team has gotten off to an uneven start in Ligue 1, and Lyon are seventh in the table on seven points — already eight adrift of Paris-Saint German. Les Gones salvaged a point Saturday with a 2-2 draw against 10-man Caen as Ferland Mendy netted the equaliser on 89 minutes.

Nabil Fekir had staked Lyon to a lead at the stroke of halftime with a free kick before the hosts scored shortly after the restart on a penalty by Claudio Beauvue and a header in the 73rd minute from Prince Oniangue. Genesio’s team has struggled on the offensive end, totaling just six goals while being held off the scoresheet on two occasions.

The lack offence behind Memphis Depay, who has factored on three of Lyon’s six goals and made a late cameo versus Caen, is a concern for Genesio.

“Wednesday is still three or four levels above what we played tonight, without offending Caen, so if we have the same behaviour, it will be costly,” he noted post-match.

Lyon are expected to be without defender Marcal and starlet Amine Gouiri, who has scored seven goals in eight matches for France’s Under-19 squad this year.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, City are overwhelming favourites to hold serve in this match at 2/11 odds. Lyon are 16/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline while a draw is listed at 6/1 odds.

Oddsmakers are also expecting City to run rampant offensively, with a listing of 4/9 odds for a Citizens victory with more than 2.5 goals. A City victory by a 1-0 or 2-0 count checks in at 4/1, while a 0-0 or 1-1 draw offers a 9/1 return.

For first goal-scorers, Aguero’s questionable status has not turned away his possible selection as he is listed as the 5/2 favourite. Jesus is second at 7/2 while Sterling and Leroy Sane are joint-third at 5/1 odds. Those who fancy Mahrez finishing the first goal as opposed to creating it can get an 11/2 listing. The top Lyon option is Moussa Dembele, a distant 10th on the toteboard overall at 11/1.

Aguero (1/2) and Jesus (5/6) are expected to score at some point in this contest, with Sterling and Sane just further back at 13/10 and 11/8, respectively. Dembele and Bernard Traore are listed at 3/1 to find the back of the net for Lyon’s top options.

PREDICTION

Even if Aguero does not play, Manchester City appear to have far too much firepower for Lyon to contain. All of the above did not mention the playmaking skills of David Silva behind the attacking three, while Bernardo Silva is coming to his own as an essential midfielder until Kevin De Bruyne returns from injury in a couple of months.

Still, before last weekend’s victory, Guardiola cut a frustrated figure watching his team from the touchline the previous two matches. In one sense, he was justifiably angry the draw against Wolverhampton — City’s lone blemish to date — should never have happened had the Premier League caught up with the times and used VAR. But he also rightfully groused watching his team struggle to put away Newcastle in the game after that more because they were sloppy than any scheme or strategy Rafa Benitez designed that day on Tyneside.

So Guardiola will be a spectator here, stomach undoubtedly churning with the adrenaline that comes from a Champions League opener. It will be a good test for Arteta, who many have thrown in as a candidate at the slightest whiff of a high-profile opening in England and Europe. His day will come no doubt, but right now, watching him interact with his team for these 90 minutes will do more for his job prospects than any potential interview explaining his philosophy.

Lyon have some talent in the form of Nabil Fekir — the one-time apple of Liverpool’s eye — and Dembele, who forced his way out from under Brendan Rodgers and Celtic once they failed to qualify for Champions League proper, but whoever City put together in central defence should be able to brace for those challenges.

One of the running gags of Group F is City are such heavy favourites to grab honours, it is conceivable Phil Foden could get more playing time in these six matches than he will in league play in the time frame of group play given the embarrassing depth City boast in attack. Those minutes should start in the final quarter-hour of this contest after the Citizens run out comfortably.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: MANCHESTER CITY 4, Lyon 0.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 1 PREVIEWS:

Young Boys vs. Manchester United

 

2018-19 EPL Match Day 4 Preview: Manchester City (2-1-0) vs. Newcastle United (0-1-2)

About the only thing worse than facing the reigning Premier League champions on their own grounds is facing them there when they’re angry.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

(WRITER’S NOTE — Lascelles has been confirmed as available by Benitez, who also ruled out Shelvey and Ritchie. That leaves the door open for Yoshinori Muto on the right in Ritchie’s spot. The bigger question remains four or five at the back and where exactly Lascelles’ place on that row is.)

Rafa Benitez may need to park more than just the bus Saturday at the Etihad, where an aggrieved Manchester City squad look to take out their frustrations on Newcastle United ahead of the international break.

Pep Guardiola’s side surprisingly dropped points last weekend at Molineux as new boys Wolverhampton held out for a 1-1 draw. Manchester City (2-1-0) slipped to fifth in the table – no big deal so early in the season – but what stuck in Guardiola’s craw was the manner in which they were held to that point.

Two non-calls went against the Sky Blues, Willy Boly’s goal for Wolverhampton in the 57th that should have been called a handball, and the penalty shout City had shortly thereafter when Ruben Neves felled David Silva.

Definitely the first and most likely the second would have been reversed had VAR been approved in the offseason – something Manchester City voted in favour of. Silva, one of the most even-tempered players on City, was booked for dissent as he hotly pleaded his case to referee Martin Atkinson.

Justice was served in the 69th minute through Aymeric Laporte’s bullet header off a free kick by Ilkay Gundogan. Sergio Aguero nearly won it at the death, but his free kick – one of three City shots to hit the woodwork – cannoned off the crossbar and the match ended 1-1.

Guardiola refused to be drawn into a post-match debate about the two momentous decisions, simply saying “The Premier League will decide when VAR will be here, it’s none of my business.”

While Wolves deserve credit for being the rare side able to disrupt City’s preference to play out from the back, Guardiola noted his team was sloppy on both sides of the ball.

“It was a good game for the spectators, but we conceded too many counterattacks and missed simple passes,” he said. “We tried, created chances but sometimes the final ball wasn’t good, but we will improve because defensively we weren’t as solid as we normally are.”

Guardiola opted for a four-man back line versus Wolverhampton but given the overwhelming advantage in possession they are expected to have in this contest, it would not be surprising to see him revert to the 3-1-4-2 utilised in City’s 6-1 rout of Huddersfield a fortnight ago. Laporte, John Stones and Vincent Kompany gave wide backs Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva the freedom to range forward practically into the attacking third.

The City boss could also reunite Aguero with Gabriel Jesus in the first XI considering the pair have combined for 17 goals in the eight league matches they have started together. Aguero in particular has been lethal in City’s last two home wins over Newcastle, racking up eight goals to give him 14 in 12 career meetings.

Even with Kevin De Bruyne a long-term injury absence, Guardiola has a wealth of attacking permutations which are likely forcing counterpart Benitez to burn the midnight oil for a second straight week.

Benitez’s relentless toil to neutralise the best sides of the Premier League is born from necessity due to the chasm in talent. He came under fire for using a five-man back last Sunday at home versus Chelsea, ceding more than 80 percent possession, yet Newcastle (0-1-2) very nearly nicked a point.

The Magpies were denied that draw as DeAndre Yedlin deflected a cross into his own net on 87 minutes, undoing the work he did four minutes prior when he whipped a cross from the right Joselu clinically headed for the equaliser.

“My job as manager is to analyse my squad, then decide what is the best approach to each game. Chelsea spent more in one window than we did in six,” Benitez said Tuesday in taking another shot at owner Mike Ashley for his lack of funds this summer.

“Everyone has different ideas and options, but for the squad we have this approach is fine. We almost got a draw.

“I am not happy that we didn’t get the points we deserved, but we are in a good position in terms of confidence in the team and the way we work.”

There was also much ado about the absence of centre back Jamaal Lascelles, whom Benitez claimed had an ankle injury amid media reports he dropped the captain after a disagreement over tactics. Benitez insisted Tuesday “we are fine” when asked about their relationship, but the defender is questionable.

Newcastle’s hangover continued Wednesday with a 3-1 loss at Championship side Nottingham Forest in the second round of the Carabao Cup. Salomon Rondon gave the Magpies a lifeline with a stoppage-time equaliser, but they quickly conceded a second.

Ayoze Perez had to be restrained by Benitez after the final whistle when referee Jeremy Simpson did not award a potential tying penalty after being pulled back by Forest defender Luke Steele which came seconds before Newcastle conceded a third.

Midfielder Jonjo Shelvey will miss his third straight match due to a calf injury, with Mo Diame the leading option to take that playmaking spot deeper in the midfield. Matt Ritchie has also been ruled out due to injury. Kenedy will return after being ineligible to face his parent club, but midfielder Isaac Hayden will finish serving his three-match ban for a direct red card against Cardiff City.

The Sky Blues are unbeaten in their last 21 league matches (18-3-0) versus Newcastle since a 1-0 road loss Sept. 24, 2005. The Magpies’ lone win in the last 23 contests (1-3-19) across all competitions was a 2-0 upset at the Etihad in the fourth round of the 2015 League Cup.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Man City are staggering 1/9 favourites to bounce back with a victory, while Newcastle United are 28/1 long shots to pull off a shock scoreline and return to Tyneside with three points. Even getting one point for the Toons seems a reach with 17/2 odds for a draw.

Oddsmakers also seem fairly confident in City’s ability to ring up goals against Newcastle, with 4/9 odds on a Sky Blues victory and over 2.5 goals. There are 16/5 odds on Man City winning 1-0 or 2-0, and the third-highest choice would be a 0-0 or 1-1 draw returning 11/1 odds.

Aguero’s proficiency against Newcastle has created a separate list of prop bets, the most eye-catching one being just 5/1 odds on the Argentina international recording a hat trick. There are 10/3 odds on him scoring on both sides of halftime.

As for first goal-scorer, Aguero is the easy frontrunner with 19/10 odds, followed by Jesus (3/1) and Raheem Sterling (7/2). There are nine City players listed — even Phil Foden — before finding Joselu and Rondon as Newcastle’s joint-top options at 16/1.

Aguero (4/11), Jesus (3/4) and Sterling (10/11) are heavy favourites to find the back of the net at some point in this match, with Mahrez (21/20) nearly an even-money selection. Rondon and Joselu are getting 4/1 odds to beat Ederson over the course of 90 minutes.

PREDICTION

You want to believe in Benitez, that he’s not losing the plot and simply playing these two matches against Chelsea and Manchester City simply to get them out of the way while trying to simply steal a point against either and/or both. He nearly got one against Chelsea, but that was due more to Eden Hazard failing to be patient when in possession.

The Citizens are a much different animal and are likely going to have eight players in the attacking third with Kompany and Laporte mopping up clearances Newcastle launch as City will recycle with the ball. That 80 percent possession figure Chelsea enjoyed is at risk of being topped at the Etihad.

It would not be a surprise either way if Lascelles starts or is dropped entirely from the 18. Federico Fernandez did not do anything horrific versus Chelsea as the middle man on the back line, so there is cover for Lascelles. Having Kenedy means there is at least an outlet for clearances up the sideline as opposed to Rondon being stranded without service. How Newcastle utilise that option may determine the competitiveness of this match.

Look for City to play wide through Mendy and Bernardo Silva. At some point, Yedlin is going to get caught too far upfield, and it likely will happen on more than one occasion. That is the space Guardiola’s side has exploited in the past and will do so again here.

Predicted final score: Manchester City 3, Newcastle United 0.

Other Match Day 4 Previews:

Leicester City (2-0-1) vs. Liverpool (3-0-0)
Chelsea (3-0-0) vs. Bournemouth (2-1-0)
West Ham United (0-0-3) vs. Wolverhampton (0-2-1)
Watford (3-0-0) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (3-0-0)