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)

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

Manchester City are hoping their weekend domestic form carries over to their Champions League midweek matchup at Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday in whicy could be a tricky Group F tie in the Ukraine.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

City remained unbeaten and atop the Premier League on goal difference over Liverpool with an emphatic 5-0 thrashing of Burnley at home Saturday. Bernando Silva and Fernandinho broke open a close contest with goals two minutes apart early in the second half, and Riyad Mahrez and Leroy Sane added gloss to the scoreline with markers in the final seven minutes.

In addition to the three points, there was the welcome return of Kevin De Bruyne, who played for nearly a half-hour in his first action since City’s season-opening win over Arsenal. The Belgium international returned nearly a month ahead of his expected recovery timetable and had been sidelined with a knee injury suffered in practice in late August. De Bruyne had 12 goals and 20 assists in all competitions last season, and his creativity could be key in unlocking City’s offence in Champions League play.

For all the oohs and aahs City’s offence creates, it has been their defence that has shined. Guardiola’s side recorded their fifth consecutive clean sheet in Premier League play, and the spine of the defence had a late adjustment with John Stones playing right back after Kyle Walker was a late scratch due to a groin issue. Walker did travel with the team and is expected to play.

“I would say we have four incredible central defenders,” Guardiola told City’s official website. “When Nicolas Otamendi has played, and Vincent Kompany and John Stones, it is always a good level. That is a good sign for the team.

“It’s not possible to do what we did last season without Nico, but Aymeric Laporte didn’t have a World Cup so he arrived fresh in top condition and he has a left foot,” Guardiola added. “He helps us to make our build-up. When the ball comes from the right, he controls from the left. Playing with Leroy Sane, it’s quicker to play with the right foot in that position.

“It’s important to have central defenders on the left. He is fit and training every single day. He is professional – so serious – and playing at a good level. We trust [in him]a lot in this moment but the season is so long.”

As imperious as City’s defence have been in England — they have shipped a joint-league low three goals along with Liverpool — it has yet to translate in group play. The Citizens have allowed three goals in their two group matches, and there is still a residual sting following their 2-1 loss at home to Lyon three weeks ago that threw this group up for grabs.

“We are going to put in all effort to win this competition, but from what I saw last season we are not ready, that’s what I feel,” Guardiola told the BBC. “That doesn’t mean we are not going to try.

“It’s one important thing to win this kind of title, you have to be pushed – not just by the manager, by everyone surrounding Manchester City that we have to win it. And still we don’t have that feeling, the feeling that the fans are pushing that we have to win the Champions League.”

The match will also serve as a homecoming for midfielder Fernandinho, still a well-liked player among Shakhtar supporters after his eight seasons there before his move to City in 2013. There is mutual respect in both directions, with the 33-year-old so grateful for being allowed to move he reportedly waived £4 million in bonuses earned.

“I had a very good time there and still know a lot of people there,” the Brasil international said. “It’s nice because they open the door from Europe for Brasilian players and after that they have the chance to change their teams. It’s nice, the connection between the Ukrainian people and Brazilians.”

Shakhtar have played both Hoffenheim and Lyon to 2-2 draws in their first two Champions League matches but squandered a chance to help themselves greatly against the French side, frittering away Junior Moraes’ brace on either side of halftime by conceding in the 70th and 72nd minutes.

The Ukrainian side are unbeaten in their last 11 matches (8-3-0) in all competitions since a 1-0 loss at Dynamo Kyiv to open the season. The Pitmen overcame a red card to Olarenwaju Kayode to record a 1-0 victory over Desna, getting an 88th-minute goal from Maycon in a testy match that saw seven yellow cards given out in addition to Kayode’s ejection.

Shakhtar, though, will be without two of their starters for this match through injury — midfielders Taison and Marlos. Taison is a considerable blow considering he has a team-high five assists in league play and Marlos plays in the middle of the park in their 4-4-2 set-up. Manager Paulo Fonseca said his team will not deviate from that formation but will be facing their sternest challenge to date considering they have shipped just six goals in league play.

“We will not change the formation no matter what,” Fonseca said at his Monday news conference. “We will play with the same formation that we’ve been using almost from the very beginning of my work at Shakhtar. Taison and Marlos? Yes, we lost two, probably the most important elements of the team. Ismaily’s appearance is also in question. We will try to do with the people we have.”

Regardless of who is supplying the ball, Moraes has been a relentless goal-scorer, with 10 in 11 matches in league play in his first season with Shakhtar after moving from Dynamo in addition to his brace against Lyon. Including Europa League play, Moraes has 13 goals in 26 European matches.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Manchester City are prohibitive favourites to return home with all three points at impressive 1/3 odds. There are 21/5 odds for them to get at least one point, while Shakhtar are 15/2 odds to get a shock result and throw the group into further chaos.

Oddsmakers are also expecting Man City to continue their goal-scoring binge from the weekend, with 8/11 odds on a Citizens win with more than 2.5 goals. There also are 19/5 odds on a City victory by a 1-0 or 2-0 count, and 13/2 odds for Donetsk to hold out defensively for a 0-0 or 1-1 draw. A victory by the Ukraine side with more than 2.5 goals returns 11/1 odds, and under the 2.5 threshold is 20/1.

Aguero leads a parade of five City players for first-goal options at 14/5 odds. Gabriel Jesus is second at 10/3, just ahead of a well-rested Raheem Sterling (4/1). Wingers Riyad Mahrez and Leroy Sane round out the top five at 9/2 and 5/1, respectively, to create a 0-1 scoreline. Shakhtar’s top choice is Junior Moraes at 15/2, even with Man City playmaker and just ahead of Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva — all of whom are 9/1.

Aguero is better than even money odds to score over the course of 90 minutes at 8/11, as is Jesus (10/11). Sterling is just below that with a 21/20 listing, with Mahrez (13/10) edging out Sane (6/4) for fourth. Moraes again is the top choice for the hosts at 23/10, with Olarenwaju Kayode second with 3/1 odds.

PREDICTION

Is this the match where City put together a full 90-minute Champions League effort? Because frankly, they need it to jump-start their chances to finish atop this group and avoid potential showdowns with the perennial European powers in the knockout round.

One decision that will be interesting to watch pan out was Guardiola leaving Sterling out of Saturday’s romp past Burnley. Considering Sterling had finally ended his goal-scoring drought at the international level for England during the break, it appeared — on the surface at least — to trot him out there at home versus the Clarets and see if he can add to it.

The flip side of that is Guardiola was going to find a way to get De Bruyne some run ahead of this match, which meant Sterling was expendable to a degree. It is not a certainty the Belgian playmaker will get the start for this contest, but the prospects of De Bruyne and David Silva on the wings trying all sorts of passes for Sterling, Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane to latch onto is tantalising.

But Guardiola was also right to praise his defence after Saturday’s victory, to pump them up ahead of this contest given City’s curious struggles in group play. It is surprising after last season’s quarterfinal exit that they have shut off at times during their first two matches and paid a heavy price in each of them, the win over Hoffenheim notwithstanding.

Shakhtar may be playing to limit the damage without their two playmakers, but they still have a puncher’s chance at home with Moraes, who had scored five goals in his previous four games before being held off the scoresheet against Desna.

Nothing has come easy for City, and there is little reason to believe it will start after a journey of nearly 3,000 kilometres. But this will be a match where City should be able to impose their will through the midfield, especially with De Bruyne back, and return home with three points and perhaps the lead in the group.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Shakhtar Donetsk 0, Manchester City 2.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 3 PREVIEWS:

Manchester United (1-1-0) vs. Juventus (2-0-0)
PSV Eindhoven (0-0-2) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (0-0-2)
Liverpool (1-0-1) vs. Red Star Belgrade (0-1-1)