There are many ways to view Manchester City’s shocking home loss to Crystal Palace, but regardless of how one chooses to do so, one thing is clear.
There is genuine pressure on Pep Guardiola’s side as they head to the Midlands for the second time in barely more than a week to face Leicester City on Boxing Day.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The combination of questionable personnel decisions in terms of position, poor play, and a wonder strike from an opponent all contributed to City’s second league defeat in three matches. It also dropped the Citizens (14-2-2) four points behind table-toppers Liverpool as the two sides steam towards a titanic clash at the Etihad on Jan. 3.
The defeat ended a staggering 52-match unbeaten run (45-7-0) against non-Big Six sides since a 4-0 loss at Everton nearly two years ago and marked the first time in Guardiola’s tenure there is an external pressure on his side since his much-heralded arrival in 2016.
In terms of personnel and tactics, Guardiola’s ill-fated decision to let centre back John Stones play the role of defensive midfielder – a spot normally occupied by the injured Fernandinho – proved fatal as City had trouble linking from its back third to its attacking five. That was most evident on the disastrous clearance that led to Andros Townsend’s thunderous volley from 30 yards that could stand as the Premier League goal of the season come May.
“Obviously the result is a setback. We have lost but we are only looking at ourselves game to game,” left back Fabian Delph told City’s official website. “We had a few chances which we have put away in the past, but fair play to Crystal Palace – they were stubborn and organised.
“It’s hard to analyse and we will go back to the drawing board and look at it. We started slowly and the ball wasn’t zipping about.”
If Fernandinho is unavailable again, it sees more likely Guardiola would use Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne as a defensive midfield pairing rather than try Stones as a sole holding option for a third straight match.
If there was a bright spot, it is that De Bruyne looks more and more ready to play a full 90 minutes as he scored for the second time in as many matches following a lengthy absence due to a knee injury. The Belgium international started in City’s shootout win last week in the Carabao Cup quarterfinals.
Striker Sergio Aguero could also be in line for his first league start since late November as he had a 40-minute runout versus Palace after being part of the first XI in the Midlands.
Though they lost to City in a shootout, Leicester City (7-4-7) took plenty of confidence from having played City level for 90 minutes and followed it up with their best result of the season, a 1-0 victory at Chelsea on Saturday. Jamie Vardy looked like the Vardy from the club’s championship-winning run in 2015-16, nipping at defenders’ heels and using his industry to score the lone goal of the match on 51 minutes.
“It was a great collective performance today,” midfielder James Maddison, who set up Vardy’s goal, told the club’s official website. “We can’t single out individuals because it was a great team performance, it was one of them where we had to dig in.
“It wasn’t the prettiest, but you have games like that but you come away with three points and that’s what we came for.”
Vardy, who leads Leicester with six goals in all competitions, has dealt with a niggling groin injury in recent weeks that has occasionally forced manager Claude Puel to be cautious with his feisty veteran striker. The gaffer, though, also thinks that conservative approach could pay dividends during this busy holiday stretch for the former England international.
“Jamie showed it was behind him, this injury,” Puel said at his Monday news conference. “We managed to keep him fit with all his possibilities and his attributes. He can play in his best way and that’s the most important thing.
“I’ve said before how important it is to manage our players. We have a busy period with tough games to prepare, an exciting game now, but it’s important to take the right decisions. Jamie has showed his quality and he came back at a fantastic level.”
It will be interesting to see if Puel sticks with the 4-3-3 formation he used to counteract Chelsea’s 4-3-3 or whether he reverts back to his customary 4-2-3-1 set-up.
City are unbeaten in their last five (3-2-0) in all competitions versus Leicester City and won three on the trot in league play. De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus scored four minutes apart bridging halftime in last season’s corresponding fixture.
This will also be Riyad Mahrez’s first league match against his former team after his move to Manchester City over the summer. The Algeria international, who had a January move to City fall apart, started last week’s shootout win but was not one of the four penalty takers for the Citizens.
Per Bet365, City are solid 4/11 favourites to regroup and keep the pressure on Liverpool with three points, while hosts Leicester City are distant 17/2 underdogs to pull off a second consecutive shock scoreline. There are 17/4 odds for the Foxes to hold out for another draw against City, one that would this time earn them a point.
Though the teams struck for only two goals last week, oddsmakers continue to believe there are goals to be had between the sides. There are 8/13 odds to clear 2.5 goals this time compared to 13/10 odds for a second match under that threshold. The odds of one team recording a clean sheet are 4/5, just better than both teams scoring at 19/20.
The expectation Aguero will be in the first XI has vaulted him to the top choice for the first goal-scorer of the match at 5/2, followed by Gabriel Jesus (10/3). Raheem Sterling rounds out the top three at 9/2, with former Foxes winger Mahrez an 11/2 option to score against his former team. De Bruyne is an 8/1 pick to run his goal-scoring streak to three matches while making it 0-1.
Vardy is the top pick for the hosts at 9/1, with Maddison and Kelechi Iheanacho further down the pecking order at 14/1.
Aguero is an 8/13 selection to score over the course of 90 minutes, and Jesus (5/6) is the only other selection better than even money. Sterling is a 6/5 pick, followed by Mahrez (6/4), and Leroy Sane is a 13/8 selection to avoid going a fourth consecutive contest without a goal. Vardy has 13/5 odds on scoring a goal for the second straight match, with Maddison and Iheanacho again paired together — this time at 4/1 — and Demarai Gray another notch back at 5/1.
At some point during the last week, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp mentioned that he believed it may take 105 points to win the Premier League this season — a staggering figure when you consider if the Reds beat Newcastle as expected on Boxing Day they will have 51 points at the halfway pole and also mans Liverpool can only afford one non-victory in the final 19 league matches.
That is what makes City’s loss to Palace all the more damaging. It’s not the actual loss, though it was completely out of the blue. It was a loss that did not have to take place — there was no need for Guardiola not to further his Stones experiment in league play. That’s not to take anything away from Stones, who is still evolving into a top-drawer centre back and could form a devastating partnership with Laporte for the next decade once he realises his ceiling of vast potential.
But he looked uncomfortable on the ball, and to Roy Hodgson and Crystal Palace’s credit, they seized on it right away, took the match to the City. The rub of the green with Townsend’s thunderbolt was as much deserved as it was luck.
Last week was on Guardiola, which means he needs to take these next two matches before hosting Liverpool as an all hands on deck approach to win all six points with the hope Liverpool drop either contest to reduce the four-point deficit by the time Jan. 3 rolls around. Inching closer to full strength via Aguero and De Bruyne obviously helps, but this is the time where City have to be ruthless at every position and Guardiola has to go above and beyond demanding it.
Leicester City have played their best 180 minutes of the season in their last two contests, and it will be curious to see how much belief is carried over from the weekend into this contest. The Foxes proved City can be caught from behind — as did Palace last week — and conceding first is not a death sentence to defeat.
It remains to be seen of Puel can run out a 4-3-3 for the second straight match, though it takes more the form of a 4-3-2-1 set up with Vardy harrying defenders. He is the kind of nuisance Stones probably does not want to see this weekend given his performance versus Palace, but he will at least have support on the back line.
It may take a while for City to shake off their hangover, and Leicester will be dogged opponents, but in the end, there is too much class and too much firepower for the Foxes to hold off.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Leicester City 0, Manchester City 2.