After securing their best ever start in the Champions League on Tuesday – 6 points from the first 2 games – City head south to face the Champions in what promises to be a humdinger of a match and their first real test against genuine title contenders.
Since their surprise opening day defeat at The Bridge against Burnley, Conte`s men have gotten things well back on track and have won 6 and drawn 1 of the subsequent fixtures in all competitions. Whilst City have been setting records in the league with their goal scoring, Chelsea haven`t been slouches in this regard themselves having netted 17 times in their last 6 matches prior to including the EFL Cup and the Champions League. They will certainly be on a high after their last minute winner against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday evening.
Pep`s delight at having secured a hard fought victory on Tuesday evening against Shakhtar Donetsk will have been tinged with some chagrin at the sight of Benjamin Mendy on crutches and with his right knee in a heavy brace following his trip to Barcelona for a consultation with leading orthopaedic surgeon and trusted specialist, Dr Ramon Cugat. The full details of his injury and the length of his absence have yet to be confirmed but the indications from Guardiola were not promising with the possibility that he could be sidelined for ‘months`.
Make no mistake this is a serious blow to Pep and City`s ambitions. Since gaining match fitness Mendy has demonstrated with his lightning fast breaks and superb crossing ability just what a threat he poses to opposing defences and his absence threatens to unbalance the dynamic in the team that has been so evident this season. Notwithstanding the excellent shift put in by Fabian Delph in midweek there is clearly no direct replacement for a player who was specifically recruited to complement Kyle Walker on the opposite wing. Whether City will be quite as able to stretch opponents and create the same space inside for the lock-pickers De Bruyne and the two Silva`s to exploit could be the defining question of the next phase of this season`s campaign.
After a number of matches where Pep has deployed a back four, this match could well see City return to three centre halves as he faces up to the team that made this ‘fashionable` again in the Premier League last season. Clearly Pep would prefer to use Vincent Kompany alongside Stones and Otamendi but the club captain`s availability remains shrouded in mystery as he appears to have acquired a permanently shifting ‘return date` following his injury during the last international break. I wouldn`t be surprised to see him make himself available to play for Belgium in the international break which follows this league match??..only to compound his injury and come back to City unavailable once again. I cannot help but feel that Guardiola was intensely disappointed at Kompany`s latest ‘knock` and that as such the bond of trust developed between him and Pep was damaged. The coach clearly wants to avoid a repetition of the enforced chopping, changing and instability in his defensive line up which was created by Kompany`s on-off fitness last season.
Much as I hate to say it I can see dark clouds are gathering over the Kompany`s participation this season and potentially his playing future at the club.
However, nature abhors a vacuum and in Kompany`s absence however what we have seen is a growth in confidence and maturity from John Stones. Lambasted and undermined by the media last season despite being parachuted into a new team and faced with a constant cycling of central defensive partners, this young man has stepped up and begun to show just exactly what he was brought to the club for – calm assurance, good judgement, solid interventions and taking command at the back. We may have a future captain in this lad.
Talking of shoving their words back down the media`s throats??..Raheem Sterling seems to have rediscovered the confidence and ability which also brought him to attention and led to praise being heaped upon him by the media before he joined City. This was before the knives came out and they set about to corrode this confidence and doubt his ability after had the temerity to leave The People`s Champions. It is great to see him demonstrate what an asset he can be to this squad and credit in this regard must go not only to the young man`s resilience but to his coach whose confidence in him is paying dividends.
After fluffing a golden opportunity from 12 yards in midweek to equal Eric Brook`s long standing City goal scoring record, Sergio Aguero will get another opportunity to consolidate his name in the club`s history books on Saturday. It will come of that there is no doubt and I hope soon because the longer it drags on the greater the pressure will grow, however subtly, and this can lead to him trying just a bit too hard at the risk of undoing all the good work witnessed recently in his provision of assists for team mates in better positions to score. Time to get this monkey off your back Sergio and make your own records.
This job may be made easier for Sergio given the absence from the Chelsea side this weekend of Sideshow Bob. He always, always manages to get underneath Sergio`s skin and the Argentinian may just be able to relax just a bit more and let his game flow. Morata has settled in very quickly for Chelsea and will need careful watching. I for one am not sad to see the back of the permanently miserable and petulant Diego Costa from their ranks – his constant need to pick fights depressed me. Hazard is back for Conte`s side so I fully expect Otamendi to collect a yellow card when he trips him on the edge of our penalty area.
This is a serious test of City`s title credentials. In recent years we have not done the business regularly enough against our main rivals and for all the ‘statements` that the Sky Blues have made with their free flowing football and goal scoring feats in recent weeks, this is going to be the first real ‘acid test` of those title credentials so far this season.
Time to show the footballing world what we are really capable of.
Come on City!!!
Opponent to watch
Alvaro Morata – the Spanish forward has hit the ground running and has 6 goals and 2 assists already to his name in 6 league appearances so far. As a replacement for Diego Costa he certainly seems to be filling the boots and doing so without the snarling and petulant behaviour.
Referee – Martin ‘I didn`t see it` Atkinson
Assistants – Lee Betts; Stephen Child
Fourth Official – Andre Mariner
Stats** comparison (Premier League):-
Goals per game – 2
Avg Possesion – 52.5%
Pass Accuracy – 72.3%
Shots per game – 13.7
Discipline – 12Y, 3R
Goals per game – 3.5
Avg Possesion – 64.7%
Pass Accuracy – 88.6%
Shots per game – 19.7
Discipline – 12Y, 2R
**Stats courtesy of Whoscored.com
Chelsea will be without Luiz as he finishes his domestic suspension. Probably just as well given how he and Sergio always seem to create a bit of ‘tension`. Drinkwater is sidelined with a calf problem.
City will be missing their flying full back Benjamin Mendy after his knee injury appeared to be worse than at first feared. This is a major blow not only for this game but for the dynamic that had been building. Kompany`s availability remains a mystery and with each game he misses the clods over his future and contribution this season grow ever darker. Gundogan is available.
Potential starting XI, subs & formation
Danilo, Stones, Otamendi,
Walker, De Bruyne, Fernandinho, Silva D, Delph
G Jesus, Aguero
Bravo, Mangala, Toure, Gundogan, Silva B, Sané, Sterling
Chelsea v Manchester City – Match Preview