Date: 9th March 2018 at 8:56am
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After the disappointment of suffering their first defeat at the Etihad since December 2016 the City squad head to the Bet365 stadium to face Stoke City on Monday evening for the final Premier League fixture of the weekend.

Pep will be looking for the squad to bounce straight back after the lacklustre performance in midweek against Basel in the Champions League. Notwithstanding that the game was effectively won before kick off given the 4-0 lead City took into the match from the away leg, Pep will have been expecting – & deserving – more from his team selection. After taking an early lead the platform was there for the players to build upon but a lack of intensity, attacking intent and the incisiveness we have come to expect allowed Basel to wrest the initiative from the Blues. Despite the efforts of Sane and Foden especially to inject some urgency into the play there were a few who were guilty of either playing at 70-80% or found it impossible to alter their playing style sufficiently to effect the game positively or to step up and drive the team forward. Pep will have learned some thing about some of his players and I expect they have received some ‘guidance’ from their coach.

And so back to the business of the Premier League and Paul Lambert`s relegation threatened Stoke City.

Previously regarded as the benchmark of how well a team might succeed in the Premier League (“let`s see how they do on a wet winter`s night in the Potteries”), Stoke City may have ditched Mark Hughes in January but that decision does not appeared to have significantly altered their prospects, their results or seen a regaining of their status as the League`s ‘litmus test` fixture.

When Paul Lambert took charge in mid-January Stoke sat in 18th place. When the game kicks off on Monday evening they will be in 19th place (unless Palace lose by an 8 goal margin) having gained only 3 points since Lambert`s appointment. Their record since he took over – P7 W1 D4 L2 – is not the worst in the world but if continued its almost certainly won`t be enough to see them escape the drop.

What this means for the game on Monday is anybody guess. We are at that stage of the season when for teams at the bottom of the league the security of avoiding defeat is less of a comfort blanket but rather adds to the feeling of slow suffocation. Stoke City have both bum cheeks firmly ensconced on the relegation trapdoor and so face the classic dilemma of whether to ‘stick or twist` – hang on for a draw and hope to ‘nick` something or just go for it? I suspect allow can guess is that Lambert will send them out with the firm message to “keep things tight for the first 20 minutes”. With relegation rivals Newcastle and Southampton playing each other and Crystal Palace away at Chelsea they will know that a win could see them clamber out of the drop zone and provide a massive boost. They have seen how Wigan, Wolves and Bristol City challenged City and the possibility exists that Lambert may opt for the approach these teams adopted.

The solution to this challenge for Pep and his charges is the same as it always is??score early and it changes the whole complexion of the game. Doubtless Sergio Aguero will be striving to do just that & I am sure that all City fans will be ecstatic when he nets his 200th goal for the club not least because it removes another ‘record monkey` from his back and he always plays at his best when not facing these milestones.

Ederson will return and I expect Kompany and The General to resume station in the centre of the defence with perhaps Danilo slotting in at left back if Delphino is unavailable (see below). We await news of Fernandinho and Sterling – Pep had indicated they should be back for this game & if so they will likely replace Gundogan and Bernardo Silva. Pep hinted that both The Dog and The Doctor may have been a bit ‘jaded` against Basel. The magical pair of De Bruyne and Silva D will return to the beating heart of the City midfield supported by Sane and, as mentioned, potentially Sterling.

Team news

Stoke City – Lambert will be without Diouf, Grant and Stephen Ireland.

Man City – Pep previously indicated that Sterling and Fernandinho could return for this game so we will watch his press conference with interest. Delph may be a doubt – shown as having a muscle injury on physioroom.com – and of course we will be eagerly awaiting new of how Benjamin Mendy`s return to full fitness is progressing.

Possible Starting XI & subs –

Ederson

Walker, Kompany, Otamendi, Danilo

De Bruyne, Gundogan*, Silva D

Silva B*, Aguero, Sané

Subs

Bravo, Stones, Laporte, Zinchenko, Jesus, Fernandinho*, Sterling*

*Interchangeable depending on Pep`s press conference updates on the squad. Foden & Diaz on standby to replace Ferna & Sterling if they don`t make the squad/fail fitness tests.

That`s enough caveats for now although I could mention the alternatives if Delph is fit??.

Referee: Jonathan Moss
Assistants: Adrian Holmes, Andy Halliday
Fourth official: Andre Marriner

Whilst they may have given up their ‘litmus test` status it would be foolish to think this result is a given. Stoke are fighting for their Premier League lives and this tends to focus the minds of players who will have been frantically rummaging through their desk drawers for a copy of their contract to check whether their agent inserted a release clause or ensured the protection of their wages in the event of the drop.

City last played Stoke at the Bet365 on a balmy afternoon in August 2016. It was Pep`s third competitive game in charge at his new club and the media knives were at their sharpest as they were waiting for him to fall on his face at the graveyard of ‘fancy football`. Pep and his team emerged with all three points after a 1-4 victory and that test had been passed. It may no longer be winter and the forecast for Monday evening is 8C, `light clouds and breezy` but the challenge remains the same – to emerge with all three points.

Come on City!!!