Venue: Etihad Stadium, Manchester
Kickoff: Sunday, 16th August – 16:00 Hours, BST; 20:30 Hours, IST
Manchester City face their first major test of the 2015/16 Barclays Premier League season on Sunday, when they roll out the red carpet for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea who have a point to prove after an unexpected result to start off their title defence and the unnecessary events involving club doctor Eva Carneiro, that have tarnished the club’s image, somewhat, during the course of this week.
Though you cannot be critical of either of these sides’ results during Gameweek 1 of the ongoing Premier League season, I think Manuel Pellegrini’s men gave a good account of themselves during a weekend that saw the oft resolute Chelsea twice relinquish their 1-goal leads and uncharacteristically, have their indispensable personnel – Cesc Fabregas, John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic, to name a few – put up really weak displays, even in the embryonic stages of the season.
However, Mourinho, over the years, has enhanced his reputation by winning those moments that seem less favorable to him and, come Sunday, he will once again have an opportunity to prove himself against his premier title rivals for the campaign.
Ahead of Sunday’s kickoff, how do the sides stack up against each other? Will Mourinho go for three points after only accruing a draw last weekend? And can Pellegrini and Manchester City hand the Portuguese what will be his first defeat to a direct title rival since returning to Stamford Bridge in 2013?
The Sky Blues will play for the first time in the newly renovated Etihad Stadium that can now hold a capacity of 55,000, and there simply can’t be a better stage for Pellegrini’s men to start off a new era in style – which is to win.
City were dominant against West Bromwich Albion this past Monday, when it seemed like they challenged themselves to be better than they were last season. The backline, with the help of Fernandinho sitting in front of them, made a conscious effort to keep a cleansheet while the midfield and attack, unsurprisingly, came good against the Baggies, who were disorganized for much of the game. A determined City can achieve what it sets out to, and that was the message coming out of the victory at the Hawthorns.
Looking ahead to the Chelsea game, Pellegrini has almost got a full squad to pick from for Sunday, though he is sure to be without Fabian Delph (Hamstring) and Fernando Reges (Groin), and Gael Clichy (Ankle) faces a fitness test before the game. The Manchester Evening News reported that Sergio Aguero is a doubtful starter for Chelsea clash, considering he returned late for pre-season training and has not yet attained the fitness levels to start a game.
City’s attack functioned fluidly against West Bromwich on Monday – creating a whopping 15 goal scoring chances, registering a shot accuracy of 78% and ended up scoring 3 goals – and coming up against last season’s meanest defence should not restrict the Cityzens from playing their best football. Yes, it is given that Chelsea will make it hard for City than Tony Pulis’ side did, but a City attack comprising of Yaya Toure, David Silva, Raheem Sterling, Jesus Navas/Samir Nasri and Wilfried Bony, should be able to find a way past the Terry-led rearguard.
Unlike Mourinho, his opposite number goes into every game thinking one thing: prioritize winning regardless of the opposition. Therefore, it wouldn’t be surprising if Pellegrini instructs his players to treat it as another game, and play at a tempo they are capable of.
Bafetimbi Gomis, of all people, got in behind the Chelsea rearguard on numerous occasions last weekend, and City, if Pellegrini plays Navas and Sterling on the two flanks, will look to repeat the tactic that worked so well for Gary Monk’s side. Add to it a dogged Pablo Zabaleta, who has made a name for himself making good overlapping runs that come in handy when his side plays against packed and organized defences, and Aleksandar Kolarov who is no slouch when it comes to crossing the ball, and you have 4 players who can pose Chelsea the same tactical problems, and cause a much bigger threat than Swansea did last Saturday. Don’t forget that the Blues will look to stay narrow out of possession and restrict City from playing through the middle. So it is a no-brainer, really, that Kolarov and Zabaleta will be crucial to City’s chances of winning against Mourinho’s side.
Talking of City’s defence, I think the Chilean will bring in Zabaleta at right-back for this game, though Bacary Sagna played well on Monday, winning 50% of his tackles (2) and aerial duels (2) while also creating a goal scoring chance, and doesn’t deserve to be demoted to the bench. The Argentine did struggle a little when playing against fleet-footed wingers last season, and Sagna was Pellegrini’s first-choice in the UEFA Champions League games. Chelsea have three attacking midfielders – Eden Hazard, Willian and Oscar – all of whom can operate at any of the three positions, left-wing, right-wing and No.10, and barring Oscar, the other two are pacey and boast of quite a few tricks, too. Zabaleta’s inclusion or exclusion will be a crucial call from Pellegrini, and one that could give us an insight into what he is thinking. At central defence, Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala, who had such a remarkable debut against Chelsea in the corresponding fixture last season, should start again with Kolarov playing at left-back.
It is going to be a really strong City side that should be confident after making its intentions for the season clear on Monday night. And with a jam-pack Etihad stadium egging them on, Pellegrini’s men will be keen to put a good show come Sunday evening.
Mourinho’s side, as the headline of the article states, has abruptly not become a flimsy outfit because of the unenviable result they managed against Monk’s men last week. In addition, however, the abominable events that started in the Swansea game – in which Carneiro and Jon Fearn rushed onto the pitch and attended to an apparently injured Hazard, subsequently incensing Mourinho who looked at the situation from a footballing angle – and carried on over this week could well have been avoided.
Chelsea, though, will be up for it come Sunday, when they not only can prove their ability to defend their title this season but also show that the ongoing episode between their manager and the club’s medical staff has not had any impeding effect on them. It will be a mental battle, more than anything else, for the West London club and even a game this early on in the season, can tell us a lot about the reigning English champions, who uncharacteristically showed a few weaknesses last weekend, at home, too.
Gary Cahill and Terry together managed to win only 2 of their 6 attempted tackles last weekend while no one needs reminding of the struggles Jefferson Montero caused Ivanovic on Chelsea’s right-hand-side. The subsequent question, therefore, is: how confident are the Chelsea defenders ahead of the away clash against City? The Blues’ title-winning 2014/15 season was built on the back of solid defensive displays that, in many ways, have characterized Mourinho’s sides over the years, too.
While Chelsea’s rearguard played an odd poor game – we believe it may be a one-off – their attack, playing at home, didn’t flourish either: they created only 8 goal scoring chances and managed a shot accuracy of 38% from 11 attempts on goal. Therefore, from Chelsea’s perspective, they need to raise their game comprehensively ahead of this weekend’s clash against last season’s runners-up; not that they are incapable of, but it has to be a massive step up from last weekend.
Looking ahead to the game at the Etihad on Sunday, setting up defensively has been a marquee facet of Chelsea’s games against direct title rivals over the last two seasons. However, given that they managed only one point at home last weekend and are playing against a City defence with question marks over it, will Mourinho’s side go out and attack Sunday’s hosts? Chelsea, for me, need to come up with an element of surprise; City have got enough tools to unlock the visitors’ rearguard, and simply defending for 90 minutes, relying on the opposition’s attack to misfire, is a dangerous tactic that could well boomerang.
Ramires has been Mourinho’s go to man whenever Chelsea have played City over the last two seasons, and I think the Brazilian could well feature for Sunday’s visitors, again. Kurt Zouma could also dovetail with Nemanja Matic ahead of their backline, looking to blunt the ammunition posed by City’s chief midfield personnel in Toure and Silva. Oscar has found himself sacrificed by Mourinho for clashes against City, but is a doubt after picking up a knock in training this week; Fabregas, you think, will play in the No.10 role, with Hazard and Willian flanking him. Willian and Hazard will have their attacking wings clipped, as Mourinho surely would want them to help out their defenders, primarily, but they also have pace to burn and suit Chelsea’s tactical style for these big games.
Man-to-man, Chelsea have got players more than capable of matching their counterparts on Sunday. And, on the touchline, there is little doubt that Mourinho has got a better managerial pedigree than Pellegrini. However, having said that, the visitors need to silence the Etihad crowd and blunt a City side capable of scoring goals and repeat what Swansea did to them on the opening weekend of the season.
As much as a win will be a huge confidence lifter for one of these sides, defeat is something both managers would want to avoid this early on in the season, and that applies to Pellegrini too. The Chilean, following the 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge this past January, had claimed that Chelsea’s counter-attacking ability was weighing on his and players’ minds, and therefore, they could not concentrate on attacking alone. I wonder if the City manager might look at Sunday’s game in the same way. Don’t forget that Chelsea and Mourinho will be disappointed and downbeat after last weekend’s result. A win here could banish all talks of bad start and frailties, and set Chelsea on their way to defending the title.
Taking the aforementioned aspects into consideration, do not be surprised if this proves to be a tactical battle that features two sides not wanting to lose, first and foremost. City, playing at home, especially at a renovated Etihad that will host 55,000 fans this Sunday, will want to put up a show and secure three points. But they certainly wouldn’t want to over-attack and fall into Chelsea and Mourinho’s trap.