2018-19 EPL Match Day 17 Preview — Manchester City (13-2-1) vs. Everton (6-6-4)

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.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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.

PREDICTION

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)

 

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)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 15 Preview — Watford (6-2-6) vs. Manchester City (12-2-0)

It took 45 minutes to shake off the post-Champions League hangover, but after that it was business as usual for Manchester City, who look to maintain their unbeaten status in the Premier League on Tuesday at Vicarage Road versus Watford.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Citizens (12-2-0), coming off a 2-2 midweek draw at Lyon that secured their spot in the round of 16 for Europe’s top club tournament, were held to a 1-1 stalemate Saturday versus Bournemouth when the first-half whistle blew. Guardiola did not exactly light into his side at the interval, but the message was received as Raheem Sterling restored City’s lead before the hour and Ilkay Gundogan secured the win 11 minutes from time.

“We were flat but after, we were more aggressive and we changed the game. I asked them for more at half-time but my speech was ridiculous because in the first five or ten minutes, it didn’t work – it was the same as the first half,” Guardiola told City’s official website. “Raheem Sterling changed the game and Leroy Sane was fantastic too. What we have done in the Premier League is incredible and it means a lot to me.

“It’s not one or two games – it’s every day, every day, every day. Maybe today, we didn’t make a good performance for 90 minutes but 75 was good. It is a lesson we have to learn, how to win when we are tired. Maybe in the future, it is going to help us to do what we’re trying to do.”

Last weekend’s match started a run of six straight weeks with two matches, which means personnel rotation is pivotal. Guardiola made six changes from Wednesday’s starting XI as Bernardo Silva – who scored City’s first goal – and Ilkay Gundogan returned from injury.

Sergio Aguero was a spectator from the club boxes due to a “muscular disturbing,” and Guardiola will likely hold out the centre-forward for a second straight matches as a precautionary measure since “there are a lot of games and we don’t want to take risks of injuries. One month or a month-and-a-half loss with nine or ten games is too much.”

The goal City conceded was the first by an opposing forward in the run of play in league action. The reigning champions have yielded just six Premier League goals – one more than they have in five Champions League matches.

Watford (6-2-6) are in a difficult stretch of schedule and a tough patch of play at the moment, their winless streak reaching four (0-1-3) after a 2-0 loss at Leicester City on Saturday. This will be the third straight match against a top-eight side, a run that concludes on the weekend at Everton.

Keeper Ben Foster felled Jamie Vardy in the 11th minute, leading to a penalty the forward converted. James Maddison volleyed home a second before the half-hour, and the Hornets spent the rest of the match in an uphill slog where good build-ups were thwarted by a lack of cutting edge in the final third.

“It’s the same (as other away games),” said Gracia to Watford’s official website. “We need to be demanding. We need to improve these situations. You can see in the last games we are losing points, losing options to get better results because we are not efficient. When you score goals, you feel more comfortable and maybe you finish better. Maybe when you don’t score you lose confidences you need.”

Gracia has a huge selection headache on his hands thanks to a straight, late red card given to defensive midfielder Etienne Capoue for a two-footed challenge on Kelechi Iheanacho. Capoue, who had served a one-match ban versus Southampton for accumulating five yellow cards, would miss the next three matches unless Watford’s appeal is successful.

It remains to be seen if the FA will act quickly enough to overturn the ban for this match, but Gracia said the club will try.

“I spoke to Iheanacho and he said there was no contact by Capoue,” forward Isaac Success said. “I feel sorry for him because he has been one of our best players. Let’s see what the FA will do because it was never a red card.”

“I saw it clear because it was in front of me, but I prefer not to say anything, only what Iheanacho said,” Gracia added. “He said Capoue didn’t touch him. That is more important than what I can say. Yes, we will appeal. It doesn’t depend on me (what happens), but we are going to appeal. Someone spoke with him (Iheanacho) and told me (what he said).”

City have won eight on the bounce against Watford in all competitions, outscoring the Hornets 27-4 after the sides played to draws in both matches in 2006-07. Guardiola’s team have smashed home 11 goals without reply in their last two trips to Vicarage Road, including a 6-0 hiding last term as Aguero had three goals and an assist.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Coral, City are 1/4 favourites to at least maintain their two-point lead atop the table with a victory. The odds of Watford ending their eight-game losing streak to the Citizens with a draw are 5/1, while a shock Hornets victory that would mark City’s first league loss offers a 9/1 return.

There are 4/9 odds for there to be more than 2.5 goals, while oddsmakers have a 7/4 listing for fewer than that threshold. It is even money for there to be a clean sheet in at least one direction and 3/4 odds for both teams to find the back of the net.

For first-goal scorers, Aguero leads the line despite his questionable status for this game at 14/5, followed by Jesus (10/3) and Sterling (4/1). Mahrez and Sane are both 9/2, with David Silva lurking further back at 13/2. On the Watford side, Troy Deeney is the top option, albeit an overall longshot at 12/1. Success, Andre Gray and Gerard Delofeu are all 14/1 selections to make it 1-0 for the hosts.

Aguero and Jesus are both better than even-money odds to find the back of the net over the 90 minutes at 8/11 and 10/11, respectively. Sterling has 23/20 odds to score for the second straight match, and Sane and Mahrez are both 11/8 to tally. Silva has 15/8 odds to score, while Bernardo Silva and Gundogan have 14/5 odds to also make it goals in back-to-back matches. 

For the hosts, Deeney is 7/2, while the aforementioned trio of Success, Gray and Delofeu are all 4/1 picks. Roberto Pereyra and Stefano Okaka also join that 4/1 list, while Domingos Quina is another notch back at 5/1.

PREDICTION
One of the fun things for the month of December will be “Guess the City lineup.” While injured winger Kevin De Bruyne had odds listed in this match as a goal-scorer, Guardiola all but shot down that possibility as well as a potential return for the upcoming weekend clash at home versus Chelsea. 

In theory, Guardiola could overturn his entire back four for this match and use Delph, Stones, Kompany and Walker. He wants to get Fernandinho rest, and it would not be surprising to see it in this contest with Chelsea looming. How he does that is anyone’s guess, but Gundogan in the center role flanked by the Silvas would be one such possibility.

Regardless of who is up front, and Aguero will not be among them if reading between the lines of Guardiola is up front, there is still plenty of talent available. One potential player who could make the 18-man roster in addition to Phil Foden is Brahim Diaz, who had a brace in their Carabao Cup win over Fulham last month.

Things are somewhat bleak for Watford’s prospects to get a point from this match, let alone three, and worse if Capoue is unavailable to help command the midfield. The Hornets have also lacked scoring punch of late with one goal in their last four matches and none in the prior two.

Gracia’s bemoaning of the lack of precision in the final third does not bode well for this match since Watford will undoubtedly not have a substantial amount of possession, and what few chances they do create must be capitalised upon. If the Hornets are not careful, this match could get out of control quickly — they have conceded three goals in the opening half-hour of their last three matches.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Watford 0, Manchester City 3.

OTHER EPL Match Day 15 Previews:
Bournemouth (6-2-6) vs. Huddersfield Town (2-4-8)
Burnley (2-3-9) vs. Liverpool (11-3-0)
Wolverhampton (4-4-6) vs. Chelsea (9-4-1)
Manchester United (6-4-4) vs. Arsenal (9-3-2)

Champions League Match Day 5 Preview — Lyon (1-3-0, 6,+1) vs. Manchester City (3-0-1, 9, +9)

Manchester City can wrap up the top spot in Group F of the Champions League and avenge their only loss in all competitions this season Tuesday night when they face French side Olympique Lyon at Groupama Stadium.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

City have gone unbeaten in their last 13 matches (12-1-0) and have won eight on the bounce in all competitions since their stunning 2-1 loss to Lyon to open group play on Sept. 19. Only Liverpool — their closest pursuers in the Premier League — have been able to take points off the reigning domestic champions, and since that 0-0 draw, Pep Guardiola’s imperious side have racked up 30 goals while conceding only two.

The Citizens made quick work of West Ham United on Saturday, thrashing the London side 4-0 in their first match against former manager and Guardiola’s predecessor, Manuel Pellegrini. David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane all scored first-half goals, and Sane completed his brace in second-half stoppage time.

Normally tasked the role of playmaker, especially with Kevin De Bruyne injured, Silva has netted a goal in his last four matches across all competitions and his eight goals overall trail only Sergio Aguero (9).

“All I can say is we want to get better. We want to improve. It’s a new season, we need to be on top of our game,” winger Raheem Sterling told the club’s official website, expressing the same relentless drive as his manager. “I thought at times we did some very good stuff. But at times we could have been better. Great win but at the same time a lot to improve on.

“We gave them too many chances. On another day if they had took them, it could have been more difficult. We know what we done last year and it’s easy to be complacent. He (Pep) wants to keep us at a high level. We are trying to be better, do our best. That’s what will take us to the next level. Every day we need to perform and win games.”

Guardiola was able to rest some of his regulars as centre back John Stones was held out and Riyad Mahrez made a late runout in the final quarter-hour for Sterling. The one expected change Guardiola will make for this match is the introduction of Phil Foden, who will join the midfield since both Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan did not make the trip due to injury.

Guardiola is putting an emphasis on winning this match, and by extension, the group so he can begin rotating his players ahead of the busy holiday fixture list domestically.

“I want to qualify, that’s the first target,” he stated. “When you start the season to now, most important is qualifying in the Champions League. “If you make one or two mistakes, then you’re out. When you believe it’s already done, it’s not done until it’s done. We like that pressure. To play against Hoffenheim in the last game (already qualified) would be a big advantage, but first: let’s qualify.”

Qualification would have come quicker had Lyon not thrown an early spanner into Guardiola’s plans back in September. The French side have not lacked for excitement in their group matches, having scored nine and shipped eight while playing three successive draws following that win at the Etihad.

Les Gones are unbeaten in their last seven matches (4-3-0) in all competitions since a 5-0 thrashing by Paris-St. Germain on Oct. 7 and have won back-to-back matches following a 1-0 victory over St. Etienne on Friday. Jason Denayer’s goal just after the hour was enough to separate the sides as Lyon held out for the victory despite playing the final 20 minutes with 10 men after Rafael was given a direct red card.

Bruno Genesio’s side moved up to second in the Ligue 1 table, but Lyon are 15 points adrift of PSG through 14 matches.

“In recent days we started feeling that it was a different match with a special atmosphere,” Denayer told OLTV after the win. “I hope we can continue this momentum. Manchester City will be different for me, too. We will do our best to win and get the three points.”

Playmaker Nabil Fekir is expected to play despite being forced off at halftime due to a knock. He has four goals, and his four assists are second only to Memphis Depay. Depay, the one-time Manchester United winger, has team bests of six goals and six assists in 18 matches across all competitions.

Lyon would move atop the group with a victory given the head-to-head sweep, but Genesio has warned his side they cannot sit back and try to hold out for a point in a bid to get out of the group.

“This is a team that is superior to us on paper. We’ll have to be at 150 per cent to win,” he remarked about City. “We have to play. If we just defend, we will suffer and we will concede. That much is obvious. We must play with ambition in front of our home fans and have no regrets.”

Manchester City will conclude group play at home versus Hoffenheim, while Lyon travel to last-place Shakhtar Donetsk for their final Group F contest.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, City are still solid 2/5 favourites to claim all three points despite losing the first meeting between the sides. The odds of a draw are 4/1, and the hosts have 11/2 odds to claim all three points and the inside track to the top of the group.

The Citizens are a 3/4 pick to win with more than 2.5 goals, while a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline offer 17/4 odds. The odds of the teams splitting the points with fewer than 2.5 goals are 13/2, while a Lyon victory with over 2.5 goals checks in at 17/2. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw has 10/1 odds, while a low-scoring Les Gones victory is the longshot of the bunch at 20/1 odds.

Aguero is the frontrunner to score the first goal of the match at 10/3, followed by his understudy Gabriel Jesus at 10/3. City’s wingers — Sterling, Sane and Mahrez — round out the top five as Sterling is 9/2, edging out Sane and Mahrez (5/1). Silva has 15/2 odds, and then Lyon’s strikers — Depay and Moussa Dembele — are the French club’s top options at 9/1.

Aguero (8/11) and Jesus (5/6) are both better than even money odds to score over the 90 minutes, while Sterling is third at 23/20. Mahrez and Sane again round out the top five, with the Algeria international edging out the German at 13/10 to 7/5, respectively. Depay and Dembele again lead Lyon’s options at 12/5, with Fekir just behind the duo at 14/5.

PREDICTION

It needs to be stated that City’s lone loss this season came when Guardiola was not on the touchline — he served his ban during the reverse fixture for his actions during the second-leg Champions League quarterfinal loss to Liverpool last term. At the same time, it also needs to be stated the Citizens were second-best for much of that game and failed to recover from first-half goals by Maxwel Cornet and Fekir.

Both teams have improved since that match in September, though Guardiola’s side are currently operating with a peak ruthless efficiency that is all the more impressive they are without arguably their best player (De Bruyne) and currently dealing with a spate of injuries that include left back Benjamin Mendy in addition to the short-term woes of Bernando Silva and Gundogan.

Lyon have risen from seventh in the table to their current spot of second in the two months since beating Manchester City, and the France side’s lone loss in 14 matches since their 2-0-2 open to the season was that hiding administered by PSG. Despite all the talk of how Group D was going to be the most entertaining of the four with PSG, Liverpool and Napoli, it is possible this contest could be the most entertaining of all the group matches in Champions League.

The man with the most to prove for City is centre back Aymeric Laporte, who appears to have been frozen out of the France national side by coach Didier Deschamps. While the World Cup winners do not lack for quality on the back line, it confuses to frustrate both Guardiola and Laporte — whom Guardiola has defended and praised as perhaps his best defender. A strong showing here would be sweet vindication for Laporte, especially against a Les Gones side with quality in attack, and the prize of a spot in the round of 16 all the sweeter.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Lyon 1, Manchester City 3.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 5 PREVIEWS:

Manchester United (2-1-1, 7, +2) vs. Young Boys (0-1-3, 1, -8)
Paris-St. Germain (1-2-1, 5, +4) vs. Liverpool (2-0-2, 6, +2)
Tottenham Hotspur (1-1-2, 4, -2) vs. Inter Milan (2-1-1, 7, 0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 13 Preview — West Ham United (3-3-6) vs. Manchester City (10-2-0)

Pep Guardiola must find a new left back as Manchester City return from the international break minus Benjamin Mendy heading into their match Saturday at West Ham United against former manager Manuel Pellegrini.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

(Editor’s Note — The expectation is for Gundogan to start for Bernardo Silva)

Mendy, who is tied for the team lead with five assists — which is also good for second in the Premier League – suffered a left knee injury that required surgery while on international duty with France in Nations League play. It is not the same knee that required reconstructive surgery last season, and Mendy is expected to be sidelined at least a month.

Luckily, the bottomless pockets of Manchester City (10-2-0) means Guardiola does not lack replacement options at the position. The top two options are Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko, both of whom have played there earlier this season when Mendy dealt with niggling injuries. Another option for Guardiola is to switch Danilo from right back, with the Brasil international fully healthy after suffering an ankle injury in the October international break.

Delph is likely the frontrunner for the spot, having captained the England side in their 3-0 victory over the United States in a friendly during the break.

“I have no doubts about Fabian. He was important for us last season and he will be again this season,” Guardiola told Man City’s official website earlier this term.

City maintained their unbeaten start with a 3-1 victory over Manchester United at home before the break. While the Citizens moved 12 points clear of their eternal rivals by claiming the first Manchester derby, they have yet to create separation from the top of the table as fellow unbeatens Liverpool and Chelsea are two and four points back, respectively.

Sergio Aguero, who scored in the win over United and has netted eight of his team-high nine goals in league play, also has a pair of assists in the last two league contests and four overall. City have a Premier League-best 36 goals while conceding just five, matching Liverpool for the best mark in the top flight.

Like City, West Ham United (3-3-6) also have some issues with injured personnel at outside back. Ryan Fredericks, who limped off late in the Irons’ 1-1 draw at Huddersfield Town prior to the break, has been ruled out for the rest of the season with a shin injury. Fredericks adds to a lengthy long-term injury list that already includes summer signing Andriy Yarmolenko, Manuel Lanzini, Winston Reid, and Carlos Sanchez.

The good news for Pellegrini is he will have midfielder Jack Wilshere and forward Andy Carroll available after both missed lengthy spells due to injury. Midfielder Mark Noble also returns after serving a three-match ban for a direct red card, but fellow midfielder Robert Snodgrass must sit out this match due to a yellow card accumulation.

This will be Pellegrini’s first match against Manchester City following his awkward departure after the 2015-16 season. It was the Chilean who announced to the public the team had reached an agreement for Guardiola to replace him in late January, completely taking the edge off a City side who were challenging Leicester City for the Premier League title. While his Champions League semifinal appearance that season remains the club’s high-water mark Guardiola has yet to match, their exit at the hands of Real Madrid was so meek It caused chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak to level public criticism.

The Irons come out of the international break looking to push their league unbeaten streak to four matches. West Ham have settled since Pellegrini’s switch to a 4-1-4-1 formation with Declan Rice serving as a shield for the back four, and the Ireland international is thriving in the role Pellegrini has made for him.

“In this position, I also get to play and go forward with the ball,” he explained to the team’s official website. “I don’t try to over-complicate anything. I just play what I see, because once I started overcomplicating things and giving the ball away, there’s nothing worse than having to chase back for the ball so, when I get the ball, I just look to get my head up and give it.”

West Ham have taken four points in their first five matches against the “Big Six,” though the losses to Liverpool and Arsenal came as part of their 0-0-4 start that necessitated Pellegrini’s switch in formation.

Manchester City have won five on the trot in all competitions over West Ham United and posted a 4-1 victory in last season’s corresponding fixture. Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho scored goals, and ex-City defender Pablo Zabaleta contributed an own goal.

The Citizens are 8-5-7 at West Ham in the Premier League era in all competitions, but they have lost just two of the last 14 (8-4-2).

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Manchester City are 1/4 favourites to keep their hold atop the Premier League table for another match day and beat their former boss. The odds of the Irons claiming a point similar to how they did versus Chelsea are a healthy 24/5, while the chances of pulling off the shock scoreline of the season and handing City their first loss are 11/1.

City are expected to score goals coming out of the international break, with odds of a win and more than 2.5 goals scored at 4/6. A 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline offers a 13/4 return, with a low-scoring draw of 0-0 and 1-1 checks in at 7/1. For the Irons supporters, a victory regardless of goal total carries 16/1 odds.

Aguero, as expected, is the top option to open the scoring at London Stadium, getting 13/5 odds. He leads a line of City players that runs seven strong from Gabriel Jesus at 3/1 to David Silva at 7/1 as the pair bracket Raheem Sterling (4/1) and Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez (9/2). Marko Arnautovic is West Ham’s first listing at 17/2, while the sentimental can take Andy Carroll at 9/1 as the Irons striker is slated to make his season debut.

Aguero (4/6) and Jesus (3/4) are better than even money to put one past Lukasz Fabianski, with Sterling, Mahrez and Sane just off that standard at 11/10, 5/4 and 11/8, respectively. Carroll is again the pick of the West Ham litter for an any-time goal at 23/10, with Carroll and Chicharito a joint-second at 13/5.

PREDICTION

There is never a good time to catch Manchester City, but coming off an international break qualifies as one that could work to West Ham’s advantage as the Citizens work off the rust from the international break and go through their gears. There will be some intrigue to Pellegrini’s first match against City since that awkward parting of the ways, but that is more for West Ham players to use as motivation in contrast to the curiosity of how he will be received at the Etihad.

Mendy’s injury may result in a more focused defensive effort for Man City, though Delph has seamlessly contributed from the left back position when called upon previously. The injury to Bernardo Silva makes room for Ilkay Gundogan, who had a goal and an assist in 28 minutes of action off the bench in City’s two matches before the international break.

Such is the life of a big-money team that runs two deep at every position (except goalkeeper… maybe) where Guardiola can simply plug in quality pieces at every position

Marko Arnautovic will challenge Aymeric Laporte and John Stones, and then there is the possibility of seeing Carroll for the first time this season. What he can contribute is unknown, but all the same, the hope is he stays healthy for a prolonged period fo time to try and contribute.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: West Ham United 0, Manchester City 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 13 PREVIEWS:

Tottenham Hotspur (9-0-3) vs. Chelsea (8-4-0)
Fulham (1-2-9) vs. Southampton (1-5-6)
Bournemouth (6-2-4) vs. Arsenal (7-3-2)
Watford (6-2-4) vs. Liverpool (9-3-0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day Preview — Manchester City (9-2-0) vs. Manchester United (6-2-3)

For all of the terrific football Manchester City have produced on the pitch during their six-game winning streak they carry into the Etihad for Sunday’s 177th Manchester derby versus eternal rivals United, it has been the troublesome allegations off it that have dominated the headlines surrounding the reigning Premier League champions.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Manchester City (9-2-0) have looked imperious for most of the season, their lone loss a stunning 2-1 home defeat to Lyon to open Champions League group play. The Citizens, though, have one foot through the door in advancing to the knockout round after smashing six past Shakhtar Donetsk without reply Tuesday to put them top of Group E with two matches remaining.

While City were clearly the best team, there were some noses turned up regarding the source of their second goal – a penalty Gabriel Jesus converted after Raheem Sterling stubbed his toe into the turf while shooting and fell without any assistance from Shakhtar defender Mykola Matviyenko. Referee Viktor Kassai pointed to the spot without hesitation – even Guardiola turned to his bench in disbelief it was awarded – and after Jesus stroked his 12-yard effort home, the rout was on.

The Brasil international finished with three goals, converting a second and more deserving penalty late, while Sterling, David Silva and Riyad Mahrez supplied the other half of the haul.

But the dark clouds that had been forming since last week, created by the allegations published in the German magazine Der Spiegel that City regularly and repeatedly circumvented rules regarding Financial Fair Play and were cut a sweetheart deal by then-UEFA general secretary and current FIFA president Gianni Infantino to avoid a Champions League ban persisted.

“Well I think about that issue the club issued a statement last Friday about what happened, the stolen emails,” Guardiola said before Tuesday’s victory. “But about the business, about how they handle this kind of situation, I am completely out of that. I am part of the club, I am supporter of the club, and we want to do what we have to do in terms of the rules.

“I think that’s (the allegations) been said for the last decade, so the people is saying about the club for the last decade just win because we have money. That is always the issue here, because to pass to stay in one level and achieve another level you need a lot of time, and of course money. When you invest more, this gap, the time reduces. And that’s normal.”

The team itself has not offered a statement beyond what was offered last week, in which they labeled the allegations an “organized and clear” attempt to damage the club’s reputation while referring to the leaked emails as “out of context materials purportedly hacked or stolen from City Football Group and Manchester City personnel and associated people.”

On the pitch, though, everything has been rosy for City. They have piled up 23 goals while conceding just one during their winning streak, getting strikes from 11 different players. There has been no drop-off in form since Kevin De Bruyne was again lost to a knee injury in the Carabao Cup win over Fulham, and the club received more good news Friday when Sterling put pen to paper on a three-year extension to stay at City through 2023. The England international has 51 goals and 55 assists in all competitions since joining from Liverpool in 2015.

Silva, one of City’s longest-tenured players after arriving on the blue side of Manchester in 2010, feels the hold of power has moved across town during his time with the Citizens.

“United commanded a lot of respect when I arrived,” he told the club’s official website. “But I think it changed from when we won at Old Trafford 6-1 (in 2011) and the mentality changed a little bit that day. Now I think we are held in great esteem.

“You remember a bit about every derby you’ve played in,” Silva added, “but that one, the result, and the fact that it was at United, the respect that United commanded in that period in time, makes it one that will forever go down in history.”

Manchester United (6-2-3) avoided history of a horrid sort in its last trip seven kilometres to the east, recovering from a 2-0 halftime deficit to win 3-2 and delay the inevitable of City’s clinching of the Premier League title. In a season of fits and starts, it appears United finally have achieved a sense of consistency as they have won three on the trot.

Jose Mourinho’s side performed an impressive smash-and-grab raid at Juventus on Tuesday, scoring twice after the 85th minute to stun the Italian giants 2-1 for their biggest victory since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Juan Mata scored on a free kick on 86 minutes, and Juve defender Leonardo Bonucci bundled home a free kick by Ashley Young in a goal-mouth scrum three minutes later for an own goal as United greatly enhanced their chances of advancing from Group H of the Champions League.

“As soon as there was the free-kick in there, I had the confidence that I had to take it,” Mata told MUTV about his equaliser. “I told Ash: ‘Please let me take it, because I can go over the wall. So I tried to do what I do in training a lot of times, practicing, practicing. It was important to score to make it 1-1 and, after, it led us to the 1-2. I think because of the venue and the importance of the game, it’s one of the best (that I’ve scored).”

While derby week usually means Mourinho offers some sort of locker room material that can galvanise an opponent, “The Special One” demurred about both the FFP allegations swirling around City and about Guardiola’s side, knowing full well a defeat in this game would leave United 12 points adrift of their noisy neighbours and all but ending their chances of winning the league.

“If we draw (the difference) is nine (points),” he told The Times. “If we lose it is 12. We have to just think about the match, it is difficult enough as an isolated event … they are a very powerful team.

“If you want to speak about their football potential we can speak and about where football potential starts, and that starts with investment,” Mourinho added, himself no stranger to big-money football at his previous stops and with United. “After that of course there is a quality of the work, of the organisation. I think that is untouchable, but what’s behind it, I cannot say.”

Mourinho does have a late injury concern as midfielder Paul Pogba missed practice Friday after picking up a knock against Juventus. Romelu Lukaku is expected to be available after missing the last two matches with a hamstring injury, giving Mourinho the selection headache of which three will be up front among the Belgium international, Mata, Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial.

Of the group, Martial appears to be the safest on the left side, with Lingard getting a surprising start on the right as Mourinho chose Sanchez to play centre-forward for his industry. It would not be surprising to see Rashford restored to the right side, though Mourinho could opt for Sanchez and Mata to play with Martial if Lukaku is not fully ready to start.

One of Manchester’s own will serve as referee, with Anthony Taylor getting the call to oversee his first derby.

United lead the all-time series 73-51, and the teams have shared the points on 52 occasions. Guardiola has yet to beat United at the Etihad as Mourinho held City to a 0-0 draw in 2016-17 before last season’s defeat.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, oddsmakers do not seem all that sold on a Manchester United resurgence against the in-form style of City, who are 4/11 favourites to win this match. United are 15/2 longshots to return across town with a win for the second straight season and there are 4/1 odds on the sides splitting the points.

For the #Starman offers, the only one that looks remotely appealing and has a realistic chance of occurring is Aguero getting a goal and an assist at 9/2 when compared to what is being offered for Pogba.

City are 5/6 favourites to win with more than 2.5 goals scored while they also have 17/5 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline. There is a clear line of notice for a 0-0 or 1-1 finish at 6/1 odds, and for those who think lightning can strike twice, United offer a return of 11/1 with another victory over 2.5 goals as opposed to 18/1 for a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline.

Aguero, unsurprisingly, leads the list of choices to score the match’s first goal at 14/5 odds, but Jesus’ hat trick against Shakhtar impressed enough to put him second at 16/5, ahead of Sterling (4/1). The next four choices also belong to the sky blue hue of Manchester as Mahrez (9/2), Leroy Sane (5/1), and the Silvas — David (8/1) then Bernardo (9/1) get billing ahead of Lukaku (10/1). Martial and Rashford are both 11/1 picks to make it 0-1, with Sanchez a step back at 12/1.

Aguero and Jesus are better than even money to score in this match, with the Argentine at 3/4 and his South American compatriot 5/6. Sterling narrowly missed out being included in this group at 5/4, closely followed by Mahrez (13/10) and Sane (6/4). Lukaku again leads the line for United, this time at 14/5, trailed by Rashford (3/1), Martial (16/5), and Sanchez (10/3).

PREDICTION

There has been one thing missing in the build-up to this match — enmity. One part is because the teams had mid-week Champions League obligations, which both handled deftly (and excitingly in the case of United). One could only imagine the Mourinho mood had he returned from Italy without a result in that contest, and the inquest that would have ensured. A second part is the oxygen being sucked out of the room by the explosive allegations in Der Speigel. This has the potential to hang over City throughout the season and only grow into a larger mushroom cloud the further they progress in Champions League should that happen. But that is for spring, for now, let us try to stay in the seven kilometres between the clubs.

“The Special One” still has many things to ponder across his midfield and attack. It seems all but certain Lukaku will return to lead the line, and Martial is in too good of form to be dropped, so that leaves Rashford, Sanchez, Mata, and Lingard for the right wing. Sanchez is clearly out of position there, so scratch the Chilean.

Lingard did not do anything to warrant a second consecutive start in his surprising mid-week appearance at Juventus, so now it is down to Rashford and Mata. The likely pick is Mata because Rashford has the ability to enter the match at either forward position off the bench, giving Mourinho some versatility.

The next area is midfield, where Pogba and Matic will start, but the choice is between Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini at the right slot. Herrera did enough versus Juve to warrant a second start, getting the first after his strong effort against Bournemouth, but Mourinho has always had a soft spot for Fellaini’s disruptive abilities. The hedge is still Herrera in this instance.

If there is a worry for Mourinho, it is at right back. Ashley Young has been credible of late, but there are few in the Premier League with the pace of Benjamin Mendy, and he will be eager to test Young at every opportunity. That is another reason Herrera is would get the call over Fellaini.

Guardiola does not have a selection headache on his hands for this contest. Aguero is going to lead the line, Sterling and Mahrez will flank him, and the Silvas will do likewise with Fernandinho. Sane will come off the bench, as will Ilkay Gundogan if needed. City’s form has been so rampant the past fortnight one almost has to wonder if any overconfidence has crept into the side.

Then again, all Guardiola has to do is show tape of that 15-minute stretch in the second half when Pogba grabbed the match by its throat and scored twice before City’s disastrous high line on Sanchez’s free kick gifted Smalling the go-ahead tally.

For all the talk of how Mourinho parks the bus on the road to get a result, he still has gotten them lately. United are 2-1-1 in their last four versus Big Six opponents outside Old Trafford and their 2-2 draw at Chelsea let them kick on to bigger and better things, home defeat to Juventus notwithstanding.

The only fear with United is they emptied the tank leaving it so late versus Juventus. The only problem with that is City’s attack promotes plenty of fear even at full strength.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 2, Manchester United 0.

OTHER MATCH DAY 12 EPL PREVIEWS:

Leicester City (5-1-5) vs. Burnley (2-2-7)
Huddersfield Town (1-3-7) vs. West Ham United (3-2-6)
Liverpool (8-3-0) vs. Fulham (1-2-8)
Chelsea (8-3-0) vs. Everton (5-3-3)

Champions League Match Day 4 Preview — Manchester City (2-0-1, 6, +4) vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (0-2-1, 2, -3)

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.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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.

PREDICTION

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.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 4 PREVIEWS:

Tottenham Hotspur (0-1-2, 1, -3) vs. PSV Eindhoven (0-1-2, 1, -5)
Juventus (3-0-0, 9, +6) vs. Manchester United (1-1-1, 4, +2)
Red Star Belgrade (0-1-2, 1, -9) vs. Liverpool (2-0-1, 6, +4)