Venue: Etihad Stadium, Manchester
Kick-off: 13th January, 7.45 PM, BST; 14th January, 01.15 AM, IST
It is Manchester City 1 – 1 Everton from the first two meetings between the sides this season. The Blues won the Barclays Premier League encounter at Goodison Park on August 23rd, 2015, with the Toffees winning the first-leg of the Capital One Cup semifinal last Wednesday. Both were entertaining encounters played by two teams that are usually exhorted to express themselves. The aforementioned games were hosted by the Merseysiders, who now have to play the upcoming clashes at the Etihad Stadium, where the hosts are usually a dominant side.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side plays only one way, be it at the Etihad or away from home. And that is the reason why I say football fans are in for another engrossing match-up tonight. City want – and need – to win, to stay in touch of leaders Arsenal, who will be playing Liverpool at Anfield. Everton, on the other hand, do not have the same pressure. Roberto Martinez, having put one over Pellegrini last week, will come up with a game plan to stymie City’s attacking threat. If they manage it, Everton, obviously, have a chance.
In the bigger picture, which players hold the key to Wednesday’s encounter? Can Everton exploit City’s defensive vulnerability? Answers to those questions and much, much more to follow…
Form guide: WLWDW (last 5 completed matches, most recent last)
Ahead of tonight’s game, City must be relatively confident of achieving a favourable result against the Toffees. City have won three – and lost only one – of their last five Premier League games, the most impressive and crucial of which was the 1-2 victory against Watford. The Hornets were always going to make it hard for City and test their resolve. And it must have been a huge confidence-lifter for City to come away with all three points despite not producing their best performance.
Sergio Aguero has scored two goals in his last three starts for City, and that does bode well for the Blues. A fit and firing Aguero is capable of winning games on his own, and Everton’s backline is in for a stringent examination tonight.
Apart from the Argentine scoring a worldie, the 0-3 victory against Norwich City last Saturday did a lot of good things for City, going into this Everton encounter. The likes of Yaya Toure, David Silva, Bacary Sagna and Fernandinho, who had played the full 90 minutes in each of City’s five previous games, were given a rest. Even Kevin de Bruyne started on the bench, and played only a cameo role off it, coming in for the final 20 minutes of a game that City were cruising through.
I do not think City’s 2-1 defeat in the first-leg of the league cup semifinal will have an impact tonight, for both the sides. Yes, the hosts that day were the better of the two, and City did not know how to approach the away leg of a two-legged tie. Muhamed Besic thwarted Toure and Silva from weaving their magic. He was one of the standout players for Everton that night. Defensively, City, again, were easy to play through and did not put enough pressure on Gareth Barry, who found himself in plenty of space throughout the game and was allowed to dictate the tempo.
But can Everton repeat their performance from last Wednesday, playing at a different venue and against a replenished City side? As aforementioned, they got to contend with the fact that City do score goals playing at home. They are averaging 2.9 goals-per-game at the Etihad in the league this season, and have scored three or more goals on five occasions. And that is a huge caveat for Everton, who too will know the obvious of having to stop City from running them ragged.
The Nicolas Otamendi-Martin Demichelis central defensive partnership played well against the Canaries on Saturday, but facing Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley will be a totally different proposition. It will also be interesting to see if City press Everton more, and look to play on the front-foot, something which they did not manage last Wednesday.
Vincent Kompany (calf muscle strain), Wilfried Bony (calf injury), Samir Nasri (hamstring), Mangala (hamstring) and Fernandinho are definitely out of tonight’s game. Pellegrini confirmed that the duo of Toure and Silva, who were rested against Norwich, should return to face Everton.
Form guide: DLWLD (last 5 completed matches, most recent last)
The Toffees produced a solid all-round display against City in the first-leg of the Capital One Cup semifinal last Wednesday, but their league form has been poor for the last two-and-a-half months. Martinez’s side has won just three of its last 10 league games, and kept just two cleansheets during that time. Away from home too, they have struggled for results and victories, winning just one in the last 10, against Newcastle United.
The bright spot for them is Lukaku’s consistency in front of goal. The big Belgian has scored in all but two of Everton’s last 10 games, averaging a goal-per-game. He has all the facets – pace, power and the ability to link play – that could trouble City tonight. Everton and Martinez will hope that he can be completely fit and bring his A-game.
Everton had a much easier opposition than City, in the form of Dagenham and Redbridge in their FA Cup third round match last Saturday. They won comfortably by 2-0, and importantly, Martinez was able to rest a majority of his key players. The likes of Barkley, Gerard Deulofeu and Barry were not involved in the FA Cup tie, and should be raring to go against City tonight.
Despite their poor recent form, Everton have ammunition aplenty and are capable of posing serious defensive problems for City. In the final third, the likes of Barkley, Deulofeu and Arouna Kone, if he plays, can be really potent on the counter-attack.
Away from home, Everton are not expected to enjoy a lot of possession. But the aforementioned trio, along with Lukaku, can help the visitors turn defence into attack quickly, something City need to be really wary of. From Everton’s point-of-view, they also ought to look at harnessing City’s propensity to stand off their opponents and allow them plenty of time on the ball.
Against Southampton at the Etihad, City pressed Ronald Koeman’s side really well during the first 20 times, a tactic to which the Saints did not have an answer. But after City scored two goals and things seemed comfortable, they stopped playing. Literally. That was how the visitors came back into the game, and threatened to equalise. Everton should look to make the most of those psychological problems City have.
On the injury front, Martinez has more than a couple of headaches to contend with. Seamus Coleman is ruled out of tonight’s game with a calf muscle strain. Tom Cleverley too, is not certain to feature. The former Manchester United man has a calf injury, but did train on Monday. Funes Mori, the central defender who scored against City at Goodison in the league cup, suffered a head injury in the FA Cup game last Saturday. He needed 10 stitches on his head after clashing with Dagenham’s Ashley Hemmings. Martinez confirmed that Mori did not suffer concussion, but said he would need close monitoring, which means he too is not certain to play tonight. James McCarthy (groin injury), Tyias Browning (knee injury) and Tony Hibbert (knee injury) remain long-term absentees.
City will start tonight’s game as the favorites and with the potential of taking over the Premier League summit from Arsenal. Over the last fortnight, City’s overall form has improved and we could see evidences of that tonight. In Everton though, they have an opponent who has tasted success against them recently, and nullified their talented and world class players quite superbly. The big question is can the visitors repeat it? Especially with tonight’s game being played so soon after last week’s, albeit in a different competition.