Firing on all cylinders and close to full health in attack, Manchester City look to regain their status atop the Premier League on Monday in a mouth-watering clash at Wembley Stadium against top-five side Tottenham Hotspur to close out Match Day 10.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
A victory by City (7-2-0) would put them back atop the table on goal difference over fellow unbeaten Liverpool, who thrashed Cardiff City 4-1 on Saturday. After a brief blip in form in their first two Champions League matches, Pep Guardiola’s team is coming off their best week of play this term as they tore through both Burnley domestically and Shakhtar Donetsk in Europe’s top club competition.
The Citizens followed up their 5-0 demolition of the Clarets by smashing another three without reply against the Ukraine side. David Silva and defender Aymeric Laporte scored five minutes apart in the first half before Bernardo Silva added the third on 70 minutes for City, who extended their shutout streak in all competitions to 359 minutes since an opening-minute marker by Hoffenheim’s Ishak Belfodil on Oct. 2.
Kevin De Bruyne made his first start of the season after appearing as a substitute against Burnley last weekend and provided the corner Laporte headed home for his first assist of the season. The Belgium international had 20 assists in all competitions last season, and with De Bruyne back in the fold, City have all of their best attacking players healthy and available to contribute, which has led to the most pleasant of headaches for Guardiola – choosing the best among them for his starting XI.
“All the players want to play good, play well and be part of the team,” Guardiola said at his Friday news conference. “We have a squad with huge quality and when they play they play good because if it doesn’t happen another one can play.”
Despite their fast start and status as defending Premier League champions after cruising to the title by 19 points over closest pursuers and eternal rivals Manchester United, Guardiola is under no such illusions his side will be able to repeat in a canter to lift the trophy, and he counts Spurs among those who will push his team.
“Two points difference in five, six teams. It’s strong. You see the line-up for Tottenham. Tottenham are always there,” Guardiola said. “They can’t invest because they build an incredible stadium but it’s a top side. Last season we did really well in both games, but they are a top team.
“When you know a team does the same thing, it’s easier to control it. They sometimes play Son with Dele Alli, they can change it. You have to be prepared for that. Tactically they are very well prepared. When we see their game at Inter in Champions League, they were not worse than opponent. I say they were better. But the competition is special. The numbers are the numbers.
“It’s one of the teams I like the most to watch, I learn when I see them.”
Guardiola is expected to restore both striker Sergio Aguero and right back Kyle Walker to his starting XI. He was able to rest Aguero against the weakest side in City’s Champions League group, and the ex-Spurs and current England international Walker had a late runout versus Shakhtar after missing the victory over Burnley with a groin injury. Leroy Sane could also return at right wing, though that would mean either Riyad Mahrez or Raheem Sterling would be coming off the bench.
Such is City’s depth that Guardiola was able to slot central defender John Stones into Walker’s spot the last two matches, though Stones is likely to resume his normal partnership with Laporte in City’s spine as they try to record a sixth consecutive clean sheet in league play. The Citizens have not conceded in 510 minutes since Newcastle’s DeAndre Yedlin beat Ederson in City’s 2-1 victory at the Etihad on Sept. 1.
Though Tottenham Hotspur (7-0-2) are just provisionally five points out of first place, the gap feels larger considering the apparent chasm in form at a truly elite level between the two sides. Their Champions League campaign appears to be over before it started, as a disheartening 2-2 draw at PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday left them with one point from their first three contests with three remaining.
The Lilywhites are in third in Group B, five points behind Inter Milan, and still must travel to leaders Barcelona. A red card to goalkeeper Hugo Lloris in the 79th minute for his challenge outside the box on Hirving Lozano trying to protect a 2-1 lead proved costly as the Dutch side equalised through Luuk De Jong on 87 minutes.
Christian Eriksen was a key contributor offensively in his first start in five matches due to a hamstring injury and assisted on Harry Kane’s goal that gave Spurs a 2-1 lead, but the Denmark international also made a poor back pass that forced Lloris to make the challenge that got him sent off.
“If you watch the game we should have won, there is no other conclusion,” Eriksen dejectedly told the club’s official website. “We should have finished the game off. “We didn’t do that and PSV had the chance to come back. I gave a bad pass away, Hugo was sent off but again, if we finish the game off, we don’t have that at the end. We could have done better.”
The red card does not carry over to domestic competition, so Lloris is expected be between the sticks for this contest. Spurs, though, will get a boost in attack with the likely availability of winger Dele Alli, who has missed the last five matches in all competitions with a hamstring injury.
“We have to be careful with Dele because he was re-injured after Watford (Carabao Cup). Of course he’s okay, he’s training, but we’ll see what happens in the next few days,” manager Mauricio Pochettino told SpursTV on Friday. “We are happy that he’s started (training) today with the group and we hope he’s available for Monday but I’m not sure if we are going to put him in the squad or not.
“Dele is Dele, we all know he’s an important player for us but when he’s injured, we cannot complain because we have the squad. For me, the most important thing is the collective and it’s always important to have everyone available.”
Tottenham are still without half of their back line as central defender Jan Vertonghen and left back Danny Rose are out through injury. If Alli does not return to Pochettino’s first XI, the left wing spot will either go to Erik Lamela or Heung-Min Son in Spurs’ 4-2-3-1 set-up. Lamela has been in fine form with four goals and an assist in his last six matches across all competitions.
Despite their continental struggles, Spurs have won four on the bounce in league play and recorded clean sheets in the last three. The last goal they conceded came in second-half stoppage time in their 2-1 win at Brighton and Hove Albion on Sept. 22.
City did the double over Spurs last season en route to the title, recording wins of 4-1 and 3-1. In the game at Wembley, the match swung on a penalty call in City’s favour by Jon Moss that would have been overturned had there been VAR. But three minutes after Gabriel Jesus opened the scoring, Ilkay Gundogan doubled the lead on 25 minutes, and the Citizens were on their way to victory, secured by Sterling’s late strike after Eriksen made a match of it with a goal.
Manchester City are 10-2-4 in their last 16 matchups with Spurs, who had gone 3-1-0 in the previous four meetings before last term’s two setbacks.
Per Ladbrokes, City are solid favourites to return to the top of the table with 7/10 odds to claim all three points. There are 29/10 odds on the teams sharing the points, while Spurs have 18/5 odds on dealing Guardiola’s side their first loss and adding some drama to the title race.
A Manchester City win in a match featuring more than 2.5 goals leads the way with 27/20 odds, while an 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline in their favour has 4/1 odds. A low-scoring draw offers 9/2 odds, while a Spurs victory with 2.5 goals checks in at 11/2. A 1-0 or 2-0 victory for the hosts is a 10/1 longshot.
Aguero is the leader of the pack for first-goal honours at 16/5, followed by strike partner Gabriel Jesus (4/1). Kane is the only Spurs option among the first six players listed at 9/2, with Sterling (5/1), Mahrez (11/2) and Sane (6/1) forming an ordely queue behind the England talisman.
Aguero is even money to find the back of the net over the course of 90 minutes, with Jesus (5/4) and Kane (7/5) again lurking just behind him. Sterling checks in with 6/4 odds, while the in-form Lamela could fetch a decent return at 4/1. The Silvas — first David (14/5) the Bernardo (16/5) bracket De Bruyne (3/1).
To borrow a phrase from Emperor Palpatine in “Return of the Jedi,” Manchester City’s attack is indeed “quite operational” with the return of De Bruyne. This space will sing his praises until hoarse, not just because he is so good, but it is because he has the vision to dream. He and David Silva are two wildly creative sides of the same coin with their playmaking and ingenuity.
Yet for all that offence and all those goals, City’s defence has shined for pretty much the enitre month. It helps when you limit the opponent to 25 percent possession, but the other truth is that the back three or four — depending on personnel and Guardiola’s preference — have evolved into a unit as lethal as his attacking four, with Fernandinho their protector while the offence pulls opposing defences apart the way a puppetmaster pulls the strings of a marionette.
About the only thing City can arguably get wrong is personnel selection up front. That Guardiola addressed it this week was somewhat surprising given how easy a time he had — dispatching of Burnley and Shakhtar without hitting top gear. After Mahrez’s missed penalty at Anfield that may still be in orbit, he seems the most likely candidate to be dropped because it is a “big match,” but there’s always a “yeah, it kind of makes sense” once you get over the surprise of which big name is left out of Guardiola’s first XI.
Tottenham, on the other hand, are in a dangerous place heading into this match, because if the hangover from the draw at Eindhoven has not worn off, City will run them right out of Wembley, and that five-point gap between the sides that will result may as well be 50. The hedge here is Alli will be on the bench to start this game, with Lamela getting the nod over him and Son on the left wing since he only appeared as a substitute mid-week.
The choice of Lamela over Son is one for Pochettino to deliberate, but in a match against a team like City in which you know you are not going to see much of the ball, the impetus should be on the moment of creativity — something Lamela has in droves — compared to the industry — which Son has in equal droves — which could go frustratingly unrewarded in a match such as this.
Lloris is another figure who bears scrutinising. It has been a year of wildly fluctuating fortunes for the France No. 1, from winning the World Cup to the anguish of his drink-driving charge to still being considered among the elite keepers in the Premier League to his latest walkabout adventures on the pitch in the Netherlands. Some have spent the past week comparing the maddening similarities he shares with France’s other World Cup winning keeper — Fabien Barthez — but more times than not, Lloris has been the one to save Spurs from their blushes.
This Spurs team is almost a photo negative of the one from last term that had so much fun playing Champions League football because there was nothing to lose domestically because City were so imperious. This game and this moment, however, matter greatly for the Lilywhites and could be the bellwether for the rest of Tottenham’s season.
Win this game, or even split the points, and there’s a bonafide Premier League title race. Lose this game, the pressure intensifies ahead of the reverse Champions League fixture versus Eindhoven before the international break, and then have a derby match versus Chelsea after it.
At this moment, it feels City are just too irresistible, even with the knowing step up in class Tottenham are after last week’s two impressive yet lightly challenging wins. There are gears Spurs have hit only in brief flashes this season, and it does not look like they will be able to hold them long enough in this encounter to get what they need.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 0, Manchester City 2.