Manchester City vs Chelsea Preview
February 8, 2019
Modern day football is all about the money and no clubs exemplify this more than Chelsea and Manchester City. The fixture that’s become known as ‘El Cashico’ sees two of the most star-studded squads in the world face off, and this time there could be serious ramifications for the table.
After City’s 2-0 away at Everton on Wednesday night, they now sit atop of the Premier League on goal difference with second-placed Liverpool having a game in hand. The defending champions can’t rely on the chasing pack dropping points and the aim must be to win every game left. Chelsea’s aims have had to readjust in the second half of the season, with securing Champions League football now the priority rather than challenging for the title. A rejuvenated Manchester United, guided by the hand of club veteran Ole Gunnar Solskjær, are quickly catching up and dropping out of the top four would be a travesty for Sarri in his first season at Chelsea. In short, this is a match that neither side can afford to lose. It should be a stunning spectacle, so let’s have a look at the major talking points for the match.
A Tale of Two Argentinian Aces
Argentina have never lacked quality attacking players and the Premier League has been fortunate to witness some of their best. Carlos Tevez immediately springs to mind and even Angel Di Maria’s short-lived United career started off exceptionally well. However, there is one name that overshadows both, a man who has carved out a legendary legacy since moving to these shores: Sergio Aguero.
The Manchester City talisman has had an exceptional career, just look at the stats. 157 league goals in 228 appearances, three Premier League titles and three League Cups. He is Manchester City’s top goalscorer of all time, but if the stats aren’t enough proof there’s one moment that perfectly encapsulates Aguero’s importance for the league. That goal, the last minute of added time against QPR in 2012. A shimmy and shot that won City their first title in 44 years and forever endeared Aguero in the hearts of the fans.
He is near universally loved, but there is another Argentinan goal machine in the league now, Gonzalo Higuaín. However, his reputation is a stark contrast to his fellow countrymen’s. While Aguero is revered by fans, Higuain has often been criticized by supporters of the various clubs he has played for. Even his transfer to Chelsea was met with little hype. What was supposed to be a marquee signing felt more like a squad player coming in to reinforce the bench. His lack of superstar status is even more curious when you examine his record.
Higuain has played for some of the top clubs in Europe, including serial Serie A winners Juventus and the footballing powerhouse that is Real Madrid. He has 226 career goals in 423 games, with a strike rate of 121.1 minutes per goal. Aguero has more goals with 231 but actually has a worse ratio at 130.5. Even on an international level, the two are hard to split with Aguero sitting at 39 goals and Higuain at 31. Yet, again, Aguero is treated far more favourably by his nation’s fanbase. The stats suggest the two are very similar, so why the discrepancy between how they’re viewed?
One reason might be the performances in big games. Aguero has 40 goals against the ‘big six’ in the league and heads into Sunday’s match hot off the heels of a hattrick against Arsenal. Add to that the numerous time he’s saved City in the Champions League, such as his three goals against Bayern Munich which helped secure qualification to the knock out stages, and you have a player who can single handily drag your team to a win. Higuain on the other hand often goes missing in the most important matches, wasting chances and generally looking far off the player he is the vast majority of the time. You could put Aguero in any top team in Europe and he’d thrive, no question about it. With Higuain, you feel like the team needs to be built around him.
In England, we place a much bigger emphasis on how players perform in the gritty moments than our continental counterparts. If Stoke were still in the Premier League, I have no doubt he’d pass the cold Tuesday test at the Britannia as he thrives in those types of dogged matches. Against the best though, it is a different story. He scored two goals against Huddersfield and looked like the attacking focal point Chelsea have lacked since Diego Costa’s heydays. If he can’t do the business against the big boys though, he won’t be the upgrade Chelsea desperately need.
The Holding Dilemma
It seems strange that arguably the two best holding midfielders in the world can be found in either side, yet both clubs still have issues in that position. For Manchester City, their reliance on Fernandinho is both indicative of his immense talent and an illustration of City’s failures in the transfer market this season. Liverpool’s recent time at the summit of the table has largely been down to a disastrous December on the Citizen’s part.
They lost three games that month, which allowed their rivals to race into pole position. Whilst you could forgive the loss against Chelsea, defeats to Leicester and Crystal Palace were far more shocking. Both those matches had one thing in common; Fernandinho was out injured. His return brought City back to winning ways and his performance against Liverpool, in particular, was another nod to his importance in the side. However, they lack any recognised reinforcements in the first team for those occasions he can’t play and, at the age of 33, those instances will only become more frequent.
City have been linked to a number of stars who can play that position, yet most have ended up moving to other clubs. In the window just gone, they were reportedly locked in a three-way fight with PSG and Barcelona for Netherlands wonderkind Frenkie De Jong. He ended up at the Camp Nou, which might well be a more attractive prospect then City can offer but this isn’t the first time this has happened.
In the summer, they spent months chasing the signing of the then-Napoli midfield maestro Jorginho, only for the Italian to link up with ex-boss Sarri at Chelsea. In an ironic twist, City’s reported second choice Matteo Kovacic ended up following him to the Bridge in a loan deal from Real Madrid. Even last year they had similar problems in their pursuit of attacking reinforces, with the expected signing of Alexis Sanchez falling through as he joined arch-rivals United instead. The sky blue’s official line is that they won’t risk their wage structure or pay over the odds, even for the names Guardiola desperately wants in his team. However, if they want to build a legacy which rivals the likes of United, this transfer strategy should change.
Considering that Chelsea signed their opponent’s top target in the summer, it is ironic that they find themselves having issues in that position, albeit completely different ones. The trouble has been born from Sarris insistence to play N’golo Kante in a more advanced role than he is used to and utilise Jorginho in the holding midfield instead. He has received widespread criticism for this, from both punters and pundits alike. It’s understandable as well, Kante isn’t just one of the best in terms of ability, he has an unreal consistency that is near unrivalled.
A manager should be allowed to develop his own style of play and must be afforded the time to do so. But at the same time, you can’t take a fan favourite, play them out of position and not expect any blowback. This is especially the case when results aren’t going the way you want. It’s all well and good citing ‘tactical reasons’ when fans question a decision, but if you’re losing 4-0 to sides like Bournemouth when the expectation is silverware, that doesn’t really fly. Inconsistent results combined with unpopular decisions like these could lead to Sarri’s reign prematurely ending. In a club where the manager’s seat essentially functions as a revolving door, there’s a real risk of that happening.
Predicting a Guardiola line-up is never easy because even if all the players are fit you could be completely wrong about their positions. While he’s very fluid with formations, I expect City will start the match in a 4-3-3 with one holding midfielder. Considering I’ve just written a lengthy passage on how important he is, the first name on the team sheet has to be Fernandinho. The Brazilian played a strange hybrid role in the match against Arsenal, effortlessly blending between defence when City were without possession and into the midfield when they were. While the result suggested it was a comfortable win, they were actually pushed very hard, so I think Fernandinho will be pushed back into a strict midfield role to control the flow of the match.
Guardiola generally likes to play with a three-man midfield, with two in front of the anchor-man to dictate the offensive play. There’s a wealth of options to pick from, but Bernardo Silva has been in sensational form recently, combining delicate grace with a fierce tenacity and this will probably be enough to secure his place on the team sheet. David Silva looked unusually sloppy against Everton, so I think Kevin de Bruyne will be picked ahead of him to partner the other Silva.
The attack might be a more straightforward affair, with Sergio Aguero’s prolific form almost guaranteeing him a start. City’s sole first-team signing this season, Riyad Mahrez, has struggled for games as of late due and I don’t think he’ll start here either. Instead, I expect to see Sterling and Sane on the wings again, with their pace providing a rare level of width in the modern game that places such an emphasis on cutting inside.
The back four should be the same as the one that started against Everton. Eymeric Laporte has shown himself to be more than capable at left fullback and, with lingering fitness problems to Benjamin Mendy, should start. That leaves an opening for Nicolas Otamendi to come in again at centre back. The Argentine hasn’t been the mainstay he was last season, so will probably glad for some more minutes. John Stones should be there as well with the Englishman now an integral part of the side, both in marshalling his defence and his overall play. Kyle Walker has been error-prone for the past month and looks in need of a rest, but is still a better player than Danilo and will probably be called upon again. Barring a freak injury, Ederson will certainly be in the sticks on Sunday.
Chelsea’s starting eleven is probably a bit easier to predict, and they like to play a similar formation to City. Hazard is Chelsea’s player by a big margin, so his inclusion in the side is a no brainer. Higuaín is almost certain to start as well, with Willian the likely to finish the three-up top. Chelsea beat City last time thanks to their counter-attacking prowess, and the two wingers will have to be on top form if they are to catch the Citizen’s defence sleeping again.
Chelsea have a number of options in the middle, but Kante will definitely make the team, albeit in his new advanced role. That means Sarri will once again rely on the talents of Jorginho to break up City’s slick passing. The final name is more difficult to pick as Ross Barkley, Rueben Loftus-Cheek and Kovacic all have valid reasons to start. Considering the strength of City’s squad though, the Champions League experience Kovacic possesses will probably see him picked.
The defence will most likely see a Spaniard on either side of the centre-backs, with Marcos Alonso back in on the left and Caeser Azpilicueta on the right flank. David Luiz has been reinstated as an integral player this season and will probably find himself starting again. German international Antonio Rudiger will partner him to complete the back four. Kepa Arrizabalaga will be called upon once again in goal.
Prediction: Manchester City 2 Chelsea 0 – 27/7 with Sport Nation
Now I have to be careful here, because the last time I previewed City vs Chelsea, I predicted that the Sky Blues would get a comfortable win. Instead, it ended with City’s first loss in the league and gave Liverpool a chance in the title race.
I don’t believe in jinxes, but I’m wary of overconfidence. That being said, home advantage is a huge factor and Chelsea have looked significantly worse since the last time these two met. If City turn up, which they should be considering the importance of the match, the quality in the side should be enough to overcome Chelsea. I still think it will be a tight game though and definitely not the wild goal fest some are predicting.
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Cyrus has been writing about sports and many other topics for major publications over the past five years. Now working in digital marketing, he spends his days arguing over football and dreaming of his beloved Manchester City winning the champions league.