(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at the STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match for this website.)
As group play in the Champions League beckons, Pep Guardiola and reigning champions Manchester City come out of the international break looking to finalise their rotations for league and continental play starting with Saturday’s match versus Fulham at the Etihad.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
City (3-1-0) were given a fairly easy draw to begin their bid for European glory, which starts Wednesday at home versus French side Lyon. In domestic play, the reigning Premier League champions enter the fifth match day in fourth place – two points off the 100 percent pace set by Liverpool, resurgent Chelsea and upstart Watford – but save injured star playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, everyone is healthy as the chase resumes.
“I’m not sure if this is the best start of a season for me, but it’s the best I’ve felt in years,” said striker Sergio Aguero, who underwent knee surgery late last season, to the club’s official website. “It shows in my game. The challenge now is keeping up this level, and I’ll be working nonstop to maintain it.”
Aguero, already City’s all-time leading scorer with 204 goals, followed up his brace in the Community Shield win over Chelsea by scoring three goals in the team’s first four league matches. The Argentina international enjoyed plenty of success when Fulham were in the top flight previously, totaling four goals and one assist in four matches from 2011-13.
“Here’s hoping my good run continues against them – but I remember them all being tough matches,” Aguero noted. “They impressed me last season and went on a long unbeaten run and have started this season well. We’ll keep focused, we’ll stay true to our game, and we’ll aim for the win as we always do.”
Aguero and Gabriel Jesus will likely lead the line for City considering they have been on the field together for seven of the team’s 11 goals. The team’s Brasilian contingent of players – Jesus, keeper Ederson, out-of-favour holding midfielder Fernandinho and fullback Danilo – were all left off the national team’s roster for friendlies against the United States and El Salvador and should be fully rested.
Danilo has yet to feature for City this season after being sidelined with a foot injury in training with the Selecao ahead of the World Cup. He has been practising with the first team this week, giving Guardiola depth behind Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker on either flank.
Raheem Sterling is in contention to start after his early withdrawal from the England national team during the break due to a back injury. Sterling, who has two goals in three matches for City, pulled out of the matches against Spain and Switzerland as a precautionary measure.
Fulham (1-1-2) are one of three teams on four points, trailing Southampton on goal difference for 12th place. The Cottagers are unbeaten in their last three matches across all competitions but threw away a two-goal lead before the international break as they were pegged back in a 2-2 draw at Brighton and Hove Albion.
The Cottagers had five players on international duty during the break, with central striker Aleksander Mitrovic continuing his blistering form with a brace for Serbia in their 2-2 draw against Romania in UEFA Nations League play Monday night.
Mitrovic shares the Premier League scoring lead with Liverpool’s Sadio Mane on four goals, bagging all of them in Fulham’s last three league contests. Since his arrival on loan from Newcastle in January to help the Cottagers win promotion – a deal made permanent ahead of this term – Mitrovic has 16 goals in 22 league matches.
At the other end of the pitch, keeper Marcus Bettinelli appears to have claimed Fulham’s No. 1 shirt and is coming off his first international call-up with England. Bettinelli missed the start of the season due to injury, and while he has allowed four goals in his two starts, Fulham have claimed four points.
Coach Slavisa Jokanovic had the team train in Spain during the international break, and the biggest takeaway is he appears to have settled on a back four. Summer signings Alfie Mawson and Maxime Le Marchand are expected to be the pairing in central defence, with Joe Bryan at left back and Timothy Fosu-Mensah on the right as Fulham look to tighten up a leaky defence that shipped nine goals in league play.
While Mitrovic has been enjoying a purple patch, the same cannot be said of Ryan Sessegnon, who has had trouble adjusting to the Premier League after exceling in the Championship. The 18-year-old played for England’s Under-21 side during the international break, and there is talk Fulham are set to give him a new contract to fend off bigger teams – most notably Tottenham Hotspur – from poaching him.
City have won five on the trot over Fulham – all in league play – and are unbeaten in 11 (8-3-0) across all competitions since a 3-1 loss at home April 12, 2009. Fulham have been outscored 16-3 in those five most recent defeats, including 10-0 in their last three trips to the Eithad.
Per Ladbrokes, City are heavy 1/8 favourites, while Fulham have 25/1 odds of pulling off a shock scoreline to grab all three points. A draw also has substantially long odds at 8/1.
Oddsmakers are also expecting the Citizens to rack up goals as there are 4/11 odds for a win by the hosts with more than 2.5 goals. There are 17/4 odds on a City win of either 1-0 or 2-0, while the next-shortest odds are a draw under 2.5 goals at 12/1.
Befitting his track record against Fulham, Aguero is the odds-on favourite to score the first goal of the match at 9/4, with Jesus 16/5 and Sterling at 9/2. All told, there are nine City players thought to be more likely to make it 1-0 for the hosts than Mitrovic, the top Fulham option at 11/1.
Aguero and Jesus are better than even-money odds to score in this game at 4/11 and 4/6, respectively. Despite the fact City have not posted a clean sheet in their last three league matches, Mitrovic getting 13/5 any-time goal-scoring odds feels like a play to take advantage of.
Though he may not admit it publicly, there may be a tiny part of Guardiola happy he is riding just behind Liverpool (and to a lesser extent, Chelsea and Watford) at the moment. That allows City to fly just under the radar — as much as reigning Premier League champions conceivably could — and be the ones who apply the pressure.
This is a match tailor-made for them since Fulham will stay true to their identity playing their 4-3-3 and getting after it. The Cottagers can take solace in knowing fellow new boys Wolverhampton nicked a point off the champs, however it is a much different proposition getting said point at the Etihad.
It would not be surprising to see Sterling held out ahead of the Champions League opener or make a late runout if the match is well in hand. It also is why Kompany is listed over Stones for this match to keep the England international fresh for their midweek match versus Lyon.
Fulham’s midfield pairing of Seri and Anguissa are going to have to do yeoman’s work to keep the Cottagers competitive. Jankovic may have found his back four while in Spain during the international break, but the rubber will meet the road quickly in determining this to be true.
Predicted Final Score: MANCHESTER CITY 3, Fulham 1
OTHER MATCH DAY 5 PREVIEWS:
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool
Newcastle United vs. Arsenal
Watford vs. Manchester United
Everton vs. West Ham United
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