Manchester City need just a draw in Wednesday’s Champions League finale to finish atop Group F, something that is not expected to be too demanding as they face group-bottom Hoffenheim 1899.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The reigning Premier League champions, though, are coming off their first loss in domestic play, a 2-0 defeat at Chelsea on Saturday that ended a 16-match unbeaten streak in all competitions (14-2-0). It was also just the second time Manchester City were held without a goal, the other coming in a scoreless draw at Anfield versus Liverpool.
Even playing without injured striker Sergio Aguero and still without top playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, City still looked the better side as Raheem Sterling was inserted between Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez as a false nine. Yet the Citizens were caught out on a counter over the top, finished by N’Golo Kante just before halftime, and they were consigned to a defeat when David Luiz added a second 12 minutes from time.
For all of City’s imperious displays this term, the loss also showed the fine line they are walking because the loss also dropped them behind Liverpool in the Premier League table.
“We still have a target against Hoffenheim to win the game and finish top,” Sane told City’s official website. “We want to finish first and hopefully look good for the Round of 16 draw – it’s important we win and end the group stage strongly.
“Even more so because we lost at Chelsea on Saturday and didn’t start the group stage very well.”
Though there is something at stake, City manager Pep Guardola is going to rotate a good portion of his side given the hectic December fixture list. Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho are both one yellow card from picking up a one-match ban that would rule them out of the first leg round of 16 tie, and while Aguero is in a similar predicament, Guardiola has ruled him out with his adductor injury.
The City boss, in fact, stated he has just 15 healthy senior players available for this match, also ruling out De Bruyne, David Silva and Danilo. Benjamin Mendy and backup keeper Claudio Bravo remain long-term absentees with injuries, which does limit some of Guardiola’s abilities to rotate his side.
“We have 15 players tomorrow it’s a really tough game,” he said at Tuesday’s news conference. “We are in next stage which is important but we have to try and win every game, to finish first. Last-16 is always tough but in general the next Monday when there is a draw it’s a success we are there and the team we will face will be tough.
“They (Hoffenheim) were incredible against Donetsk and they lost. It was incredible and fascinating to watch as a spectator. My admiration for Hoffenheim has increased. I knew about Julian Nagelsmann and his team but now I realise how tough tomorrow will be.”
While Guardiola is effusive in praise of his German counterpart, getting three points to have a chance of reaching the Europa League as third-place finishers in Group F remains a daunting task for Hoffenheim. The 12 goals they have shipped are better than only fellow Group F side Shakhtar Donetsk and both AEK and Red Star Belgrade.
“As an optimist, I can say that it’ll be difficult to get third place,” Nagelsmann said Tuesday. “We don’t have a lot to lose tomorrow, so we want to show the football that got us to the Champions League in the first place.”
Domestic play has not treated Die Kraichgauer much better of late as Hoffenheim have just one win from their last six matches overall (1-4-1) and are winless in their last four (0-3-1). Hoffenheim are coming off a 2-2 draw at Wolfsburg on Saturday as Andrej Kramaric salvaged a point with a goal in the 71st minute.
Kramaric had set up Ishak Belfodil in the fourth minute, but an own goal by Ermin Bicakcic and a strike from Daniel Ginczek four minutes apart left Hoffenheim down 2-1 after 32 minutes.
“I was very satisfied with the opening 20 minutes. We consciously gave up possession in order to have chances to counter,” Nagelsmann told his club’s official website. “We defended too aggressively before the equaliser. Thereafter, we did not get to grips with our pressing too well. During the interval we brought on another striker – we couldn’t get much more attacking than that.
We deserved to get the equaliser and dominated the second half. It was a fair result. The right commitment was there and I like that.”
Kramaric, who helped Croatia reach the World Cup final last summer, has a team-best 10 goals in all competitions and netted four in Champions League play. Joelinton has gone five matches without a goal for Hoffenheim since his brace versus Bayer Leverkusen on Nov. 3.
“Andrej Kramaric also plays in the number eight position and does that well,” Nagelsmann said. “He has a lot more to him than goals and assists. He is very critical of himself but his heart is in the right place”
Hoffenheim have never won a Champions League road match in three tries, though they did draw Shakhtar and Lyon earlier in this group. This will be their second trip to England, with the other result a 4-2 setback in a second-leg qualifying round match last year versus Liverpool.
Per Bet365, City are overwhelming favourites to cap group play on a winning note and enter this match as a 2/9 pick for a victory. Hoffenheim are 12/1 longshots to avoid going winless in group play, and there are 13/2 odds on the teams splitting the points, a result also acceptable for the reigning Premier League champs.
Given the open play of Hoffenheim coupled with City’s quality, oddsmakers are expecting a haul of goals as there are 3/10 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 5/2 odds for it being a low-scoring affair. The odds of both teams finding the back of the net are 4/6, with 11/10 odds on either side posting a clean sheet.
With Aguero out, Jesus has moved to the top of the board for first-goal scoring options at 3/1, followed by Sterling (9/2), Mahrez (5/1) and Sane (6/1). With Guardiola’s expected rotation, some of the bottom players on the 25-man roster are seeing action, including Brahim Diaz (8/1) and Foden (11/1).
Bernardo Silva is also an 8/1 option to make it 1-0 for the hosts, while Ilkay Gundogan is 11/1 to do likewise. Kramaric and Joelinton are the top options for Hoffenheim at 14/1, just ahead of Belfodil (16/1) — who gave Die Kraichgauer a shock lead in the opening minute of the reverse fixture.
Jesus (8/15) and Sterling (10/11) lead the any-time goal-scoring options, with Mahrez checking in at even money. Sane is just off that pace at 5/4, followed by Diaz and Bernardo Silva at 7/4. Kramaric and Joelinton again are the top picks for the visitors with both being offered at 11/4.
It is a shame Manchester City supporters have not fully warmed up to Champions League group matches at the Etihad because this has the potential to be a wild back-and-forth contest. There were two goals in the first eight minutes of the reverse fixture, which then calmed until David Silva’s 87th-minute winner.
It is admittedly difficult to figure out what exactly Guardiola is going to do with his back line. It could range from anywhere with Fabian Delph being shifted from left to right back to let Oleksander Zinchenko play left back to Otamendi playing in central defence or in central midfield ahead of a partnership of John Stones and Vincent Kompany.
Otamendi sitting on a potential yellow card ban is less than ideal, but if there is going to be one player between him and Fernandinho to sit out this match because of such a possiblity, Fernandinho is going to be the spectator. Additionally, Guardiola had been looking to give his central midfielder a rest ahead of the holiday fixtures, and this is as good a time as any.
Though a 4-3-3 is projected, it would not be surprising to see Guardiola use a 4-4-2 in which Jesus and Sterling are up front with Mahrez and Sane lying deeper behind the pair. Another possibility is a 4-1-4-1 with Jesus as the lone striker, which would allow Sterling to terrorise Hoffenheim’s back four with his pace.
Kramaric has been in exquisite form — his equaliser at Wolfsburg extended his goal-scoring streak to eight matches in all competitions for Hoffenheim. But not having centre back Kevin Vogt could prove problematic for a team that has often looked out of their depth in this tournament and need a win.
City could put this match out of its misery early with a pair of strikes in the first half-hour, though Hoffenheim are more than capable of finding a quick goal for the second time in as many matches between the sides. But in the end, it will be too much City, who will wrap up group honours with a win.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 4, Hoffenheim 1.