Manchester City are hoping their weekend domestic form carries over to their Champions League midweek matchup at Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday in whicy could be a tricky Group F tie in the Ukraine.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
City remained unbeaten and atop the Premier League on goal difference over Liverpool with an emphatic 5-0 thrashing of Burnley at home Saturday. Bernando Silva and Fernandinho broke open a close contest with goals two minutes apart early in the second half, and Riyad Mahrez and Leroy Sane added gloss to the scoreline with markers in the final seven minutes.
In addition to the three points, there was the welcome return of Kevin De Bruyne, who played for nearly a half-hour in his first action since City’s season-opening win over Arsenal. The Belgium international returned nearly a month ahead of his expected recovery timetable and had been sidelined with a knee injury suffered in practice in late August. De Bruyne had 12 goals and 20 assists in all competitions last season, and his creativity could be key in unlocking City’s offence in Champions League play.
For all the oohs and aahs City’s offence creates, it has been their defence that has shined. Guardiola’s side recorded their fifth consecutive clean sheet in Premier League play, and the spine of the defence had a late adjustment with John Stones playing right back after Kyle Walker was a late scratch due to a groin issue. Walker did travel with the team and is expected to play.
“I would say we have four incredible central defenders,” Guardiola told City’s official website. “When Nicolas Otamendi has played, and Vincent Kompany and John Stones, it is always a good level. That is a good sign for the team.
“It’s not possible to do what we did last season without Nico, but Aymeric Laporte didn’t have a World Cup so he arrived fresh in top condition and he has a left foot,” Guardiola added. “He helps us to make our build-up. When the ball comes from the right, he controls from the left. Playing with Leroy Sane, it’s quicker to play with the right foot in that position.
“It’s important to have central defenders on the left. He is fit and training every single day. He is professional – so serious – and playing at a good level. We trust [in him]a lot in this moment but the season is so long.”
As imperious as City’s defence have been in England — they have shipped a joint-league low three goals along with Liverpool — it has yet to translate in group play. The Citizens have allowed three goals in their two group matches, and there is still a residual sting following their 2-1 loss at home to Lyon three weeks ago that threw this group up for grabs.
“We are going to put in all effort to win this competition, but from what I saw last season we are not ready, that’s what I feel,” Guardiola told the BBC. “That doesn’t mean we are not going to try.
“It’s one important thing to win this kind of title, you have to be pushed – not just by the manager, by everyone surrounding Manchester City that we have to win it. And still we don’t have that feeling, the feeling that the fans are pushing that we have to win the Champions League.”
The match will also serve as a homecoming for midfielder Fernandinho, still a well-liked player among Shakhtar supporters after his eight seasons there before his move to City in 2013. There is mutual respect in both directions, with the 33-year-old so grateful for being allowed to move he reportedly waived £4 million in bonuses earned.
“I had a very good time there and still know a lot of people there,” the Brasil international said. “It’s nice because they open the door from Europe for Brasilian players and after that they have the chance to change their teams. It’s nice, the connection between the Ukrainian people and Brazilians.”
Shakhtar have played both Hoffenheim and Lyon to 2-2 draws in their first two Champions League matches but squandered a chance to help themselves greatly against the French side, frittering away Junior Moraes’ brace on either side of halftime by conceding in the 70th and 72nd minutes.
The Ukrainian side are unbeaten in their last 11 matches (8-3-0) in all competitions since a 1-0 loss at Dynamo Kyiv to open the season. The Pitmen overcame a red card to Olarenwaju Kayode to record a 1-0 victory over Desna, getting an 88th-minute goal from Maycon in a testy match that saw seven yellow cards given out in addition to Kayode’s ejection.
Shakhtar, though, will be without two of their starters for this match through injury — midfielders Taison and Marlos. Taison is a considerable blow considering he has a team-high five assists in league play and Marlos plays in the middle of the park in their 4-4-2 set-up. Manager Paulo Fonseca said his team will not deviate from that formation but will be facing their sternest challenge to date considering they have shipped just six goals in league play.
“We will not change the formation no matter what,” Fonseca said at his Monday news conference. “We will play with the same formation that we’ve been using almost from the very beginning of my work at Shakhtar. Taison and Marlos? Yes, we lost two, probably the most important elements of the team. Ismaily’s appearance is also in question. We will try to do with the people we have.”
Regardless of who is supplying the ball, Moraes has been a relentless goal-scorer, with 10 in 11 matches in league play in his first season with Shakhtar after moving from Dynamo in addition to his brace against Lyon. Including Europa League play, Moraes has 13 goals in 26 European matches.
Per Ladbrokes, Manchester City are prohibitive favourites to return home with all three points at impressive 1/3 odds. There are 21/5 odds for them to get at least one point, while Shakhtar are 15/2 odds to get a shock result and throw the group into further chaos.
Oddsmakers are also expecting Man City to continue their goal-scoring binge from the weekend, with 8/11 odds on a Citizens win with more than 2.5 goals. There also are 19/5 odds on a City victory by a 1-0 or 2-0 count, and 13/2 odds for Donetsk to hold out defensively for a 0-0 or 1-1 draw. A victory by the Ukraine side with more than 2.5 goals returns 11/1 odds, and under the 2.5 threshold is 20/1.
Aguero leads a parade of five City players for first-goal options at 14/5 odds. Gabriel Jesus is second at 10/3, just ahead of a well-rested Raheem Sterling (4/1). Wingers Riyad Mahrez and Leroy Sane round out the top five at 9/2 and 5/1, respectively, to create a 0-1 scoreline. Shakhtar’s top choice is Junior Moraes at 15/2, even with Man City playmaker and just ahead of Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva — all of whom are 9/1.
Aguero is better than even money odds to score over the course of 90 minutes at 8/11, as is Jesus (10/11). Sterling is just below that with a 21/20 listing, with Mahrez (13/10) edging out Sane (6/4) for fourth. Moraes again is the top choice for the hosts at 23/10, with Olarenwaju Kayode second with 3/1 odds.
Is this the match where City put together a full 90-minute Champions League effort? Because frankly, they need it to jump-start their chances to finish atop this group and avoid potential showdowns with the perennial European powers in the knockout round.
One decision that will be interesting to watch pan out was Guardiola leaving Sterling out of Saturday’s romp past Burnley. Considering Sterling had finally ended his goal-scoring drought at the international level for England during the break, it appeared — on the surface at least — to trot him out there at home versus the Clarets and see if he can add to it.
The flip side of that is Guardiola was going to find a way to get De Bruyne some run ahead of this match, which meant Sterling was expendable to a degree. It is not a certainty the Belgian playmaker will get the start for this contest, but the prospects of De Bruyne and David Silva on the wings trying all sorts of passes for Sterling, Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane to latch onto is tantalising.
But Guardiola was also right to praise his defence after Saturday’s victory, to pump them up ahead of this contest given City’s curious struggles in group play. It is surprising after last season’s quarterfinal exit that they have shut off at times during their first two matches and paid a heavy price in each of them, the win over Hoffenheim notwithstanding.
Shakhtar may be playing to limit the damage without their two playmakers, but they still have a puncher’s chance at home with Moraes, who had scored five goals in his previous four games before being held off the scoresheet against Desna.
Nothing has come easy for City, and there is little reason to believe it will start after a journey of nearly 3,000 kilometres. But this will be a match where City should be able to impose their will through the midfield, especially with De Bruyne back, and return home with three points and perhaps the lead in the group.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Shakhtar Donetsk 0, Manchester City 2.
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