The depth of Manchester City could be tested to a degree Wednesday when they embark on their maiden Champions League match at the Etihad versus French side Lyon.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The reigning Premier League champions have dropped just two points in defence of their historic 2017-18 campaign in which they set an English football record with 100 points. City are in third place, two points off the pace of fellow Champions League participants Liverpool — who eliminated them in the quarterfinals of this tournament last spring — and resurgent Chelsea.
But Champions League glory is something that has eluded both City and manager Pep Guardiola since he left Barcelona in 2012 and stopped at Bayern Munich before coming to England. A serial domestic winner? Yes. But this is now the third try for the Spaniard to match or exceed the high-water mark of City’s semifinal appearance in Manuel Pellegrini’s final season in charge in 2015-16.
That urgency was not discussed much in Monday’s run-up to the match because Guardiola was absent. He is sitting out this contest to serve a one-match ban after being sent off at halftime in City’s second-leg quarterfinal tie against Liverpool last spring. That left assistant Mikael Arteta and defender Aymeric Laporte as the club’s representatives, and Laporte was quick to give the French side and some of his compatriots plaudits.
“I know some of the Lyon players from the French national team,” Laporte told City’s official website. “Sometimes, I try to watch them play too. Lyon are strong. We’ll analyse them intently during the next few days, but as I say, they are a team with great quality and very strong, physically.
“They are used to competing at the highest level, as well. They are been there, among the top teams of the Ligue 1, for many years.”
While Laporte has featured in all six matches for City, including the Community Shield victory over Chelsea, there is a chance he could be dropped for either Vincent Kompany or John Stones. Laporte partnered with Nicolas Otamendi in central defence during last weekend’s 3-0 stroll past Fulham in league play, and while Kompany has not featured since a 1-1 draw versus Wolverhampton on Aug. 25, the Belgium international and City talisman is still an imposing figure at the back.
In attack, City could be without top-choice striker Sergio Aguero, who was forced off with an ankle injury during Saturday’s victory. Gabriel Jesus, who replaced the Argentina international last weekend, would likely get the call to lead the line as part of a 4-3-3 set-up that would include Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez.
Left back Fabian Delph could also be in line for a second straight start after Benjamin Mendy was held out last weekend due to a knee injury. The France international was off to a flying start, registering four assists in the first four matches.
Arteta was quick to shrug off suggestions City are the favourites to win the Champions League, in part due to their bottomless pockets in acquiring the world’s best players in recent years even pre-dating Guardiola’s arrival. Arteta, who was considered a finalist for the Arsenal job that went to former PSG manager Unai Emery, pointed out reigning three-time champions Real Madrid as the side to beat — even with Cristiano Ronaldo moving on to Juventus.
“It has to be Real Madrid, they have something special in this competition, they are the main favourites,” Arteta insisted to The Times. “They won the competition a lot of times, even without Cristiano too, but he was a massive weapon and top scorer every year in that competition.
“I am surprised we are favourites when you have a team that won it three times in a row but that means we are doing things really well. For me we have the best players in the world and I wouldn’t change them for any others. They are absolutely fantastic, the hunger is this group is incredible. People talk about money to spend. But people have to look inside this club, what we have created, it’s phenomenal.”
Lyon are making their 15th Champions League appearance all-time and second showing in three seasons. Les Gones have not progressed out of group play since 2012 and their high-water mark is a semifinal appearance two seasons prior to that.
Bruno Genesio’s team has gotten off to an uneven start in Ligue 1, and Lyon are seventh in the table on seven points — already eight adrift of Paris-Saint German. Les Gones salvaged a point Saturday with a 2-2 draw against 10-man Caen as Ferland Mendy netted the equaliser on 89 minutes.
Nabil Fekir had staked Lyon to a lead at the stroke of halftime with a free kick before the hosts scored shortly after the restart on a penalty by Claudio Beauvue and a header in the 73rd minute from Prince Oniangue. Genesio’s team has struggled on the offensive end, totaling just six goals while being held off the scoresheet on two occasions.
The lack offence behind Memphis Depay, who has factored on three of Lyon’s six goals and made a late cameo versus Caen, is a concern for Genesio.
“Wednesday is still three or four levels above what we played tonight, without offending Caen, so if we have the same behaviour, it will be costly,” he noted post-match.
Lyon are expected to be without defender Marcal and starlet Amine Gouiri, who has scored seven goals in eight matches for France’s Under-19 squad this year.
Per Ladbrokes, City are overwhelming favourites to hold serve in this match at 2/11 odds. Lyon are 16/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline while a draw is listed at 6/1 odds.
Oddsmakers are also expecting City to run rampant offensively, with a listing of 4/9 odds for a Citizens victory with more than 2.5 goals. A City victory by a 1-0 or 2-0 count checks in at 4/1, while a 0-0 or 1-1 draw offers a 9/1 return.
For first goal-scorers, Aguero’s questionable status has not turned away his possible selection as he is listed as the 5/2 favourite. Jesus is second at 7/2 while Sterling and Leroy Sane are joint-third at 5/1 odds. Those who fancy Mahrez finishing the first goal as opposed to creating it can get an 11/2 listing. The top Lyon option is Moussa Dembele, a distant 10th on the toteboard overall at 11/1.
Aguero (1/2) and Jesus (5/6) are expected to score at some point in this contest, with Sterling and Sane just further back at 13/10 and 11/8, respectively. Dembele and Bernard Traore are listed at 3/1 to find the back of the net for Lyon’s top options.
Even if Aguero does not play, Manchester City appear to have far too much firepower for Lyon to contain. All of the above did not mention the playmaking skills of David Silva behind the attacking three, while Bernardo Silva is coming to his own as an essential midfielder until Kevin De Bruyne returns from injury in a couple of months.
Still, before last weekend’s victory, Guardiola cut a frustrated figure watching his team from the touchline the previous two matches. In one sense, he was justifiably angry the draw against Wolverhampton — City’s lone blemish to date — should never have happened had the Premier League caught up with the times and used VAR. But he also rightfully groused watching his team struggle to put away Newcastle in the game after that more because they were sloppy than any scheme or strategy Rafa Benitez designed that day on Tyneside.
So Guardiola will be a spectator here, stomach undoubtedly churning with the adrenaline that comes from a Champions League opener. It will be a good test for Arteta, who many have thrown in as a candidate at the slightest whiff of a high-profile opening in England and Europe. His day will come no doubt, but right now, watching him interact with his team for these 90 minutes will do more for his job prospects than any potential interview explaining his philosophy.
Lyon have some talent in the form of Nabil Fekir — the one-time apple of Liverpool’s eye — and Dembele, who forced his way out from under Brendan Rodgers and Celtic once they failed to qualify for Champions League proper, but whoever City put together in central defence should be able to brace for those challenges.
One of the running gags of Group F is City are such heavy favourites to grab honours, it is conceivable Phil Foden could get more playing time in these six matches than he will in league play in the time frame of group play given the embarrassing depth City boast in attack. Those minutes should start in the final quarter-hour of this contest after the Citizens run out comfortably.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: MANCHESTER CITY 4, Lyon 0.
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