Manchester City completed the first leg of their quest to an unprecedented quadruple of trophies, but it may have come at a high short-term price as they face a quick and emotional turnaround Wednesday when former manager Manuel Pellegrini makes his first return to the Etihad as the reigning champions host West Ham.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Cityzens (21-2-4) had to work to become the first repeat champions of the Carabao Cup since Manchester United accomplished the feat in 2009-10. After battering Chelsea 6-0 a fortnight ago, the London side showed plenty of resolve in holding Manchester City scoreless for 120 minutes and forcing penalty kicks.
In a somewhat nervy shootout, Ederson set the tone on the opening spot kick by stopping Jorginho’s tame attempt. After Leroy Sane had his effort in the third round punched away by Kepa Arrizabalaga, the woodwork came to City’s rescue as David Luiz’s ensuing attempt cannoned off the right post.
Given a second chance to make things right, both Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling made no mistakes, with Sterling’s bar-down smash the winner as City lifted the League Cup title for the sixth time in club history.
“It’s a great feeling and I never take this for granted,” talisman Vincent Kompany told City’s official website after being part of a fourth League Cup title with the club. “So many clubs, teams and players are trying to win these trophies. So to be able to win that many times with City is unbelievable. Wembley is a good venue for us!”
Kompany entered the match as a second-half substitute for Aymeric Laporte, who left the game with an injury Guardiola said would sideline the Frenchman a few weeks. He said the same of central midfielder Fernandinho, who was lifted at the start of extra time.
Already missing centre back John Stones in this match with a groin injury, Guardiola is going to have to perform an impressive feat of personnel management in the coming weeks as City are still playing for an FA Cup title and the Champions League title while bidding to repeat as Premier League champions.
In the short term, it appears Guardiola will have to rely on a central defence tandem of Kompany – always willing but injury-prone over the past several seasons – and Nicolas Otamendi. Ilkay Gundogan is the most likely replacement in Fernandinho as the defensive shield in central midfield, but the Brasilian’s importance cannot be overstated considering how mid-table sides Leicester City and Crystal Palace exploited his absence in handing City two of their four league defeats.
“The only bad thing is that we will miss players in the next weeks,” Guardiola said. “We had extra time, lost two important players who will be out for a while and now those guys can help us and they will help us.
“In the last action of the first half, Laporte felt something and Ferna also felt something muscular so I think they well be weeks out.”
The other silver lining besides claiming the Carabao Cup trophy was Liverpool being held to a draw at Old Trafford by Manchester United with their match in hand. The small favour by City’s eternal rivals meant Guardiola’s team are one point behind Liverpool with 11 matches remaining while owning a superior goal difference to the Reds.
Pellegrini knows all about lifting trophies while at City, having guided them to a double in 2014 by winning the League Cup and Premier League title. The Chilean also added a second League Cup title in 2016 before Guardiola arrived and is expected to get a warm reception at the Etihad by supporters who affectionately refer to him as “This Charming Man.”
“It was three beautiful years, especially when we won the Premier League,” Pellegrini recounted at his Monday news conference. “It was a team that had a very successful season, not only when we won the league and the cup, but also the team that scored the most goals (in a season) in the history of English football (a record broken by City last season).
“The second year was much more difficult. We finished second in the league and could not win the title because we were punished by the UEFA Financial Fair Play. We could not strengthen our squad. It is so important when you win titles to add to a squad. In the third season we won the cup again and arrived in third season in the Champions League, we lost against Real Madrid with an own goal. I was very happy there, the fans enjoyed the football that we played – I have only happy memories.”
West Ham (10-6-11) are unbeaten in their last three league matches, claiming a win after back-to-back draws by beating Fulham 3-1 on Friday. The Irons shook off an early goal by the visitors, drawing level through Chicharito Hernandez before defender Issa Diop ghosted in to head a corner kick by Robert Snodgrass for the go-ahead marker on 40 minutes.
Michail Antonio sealed the victory with a stoppage-time goal as West Ham climbed to ninth in the table on 36 points. They are four points adrift of both Wolverhampton and Watford in the race for seventh – a spot that could carry a berth to the Europa League qualifying rounds depending on how the FA Cup results shake out.
With a quick turnaround to Saturday’s home match against Newcastle United, Pellegrini is trying to find a balance to his squad that will yield the best potential for results, and having midfielder Manuel Lanzini back has added further depth to an attack that has seen Marko Arnautovic and Samir Nasri battling to find spaces in the 18-man roster, let alone the gaffer’s first XI.
“We have two games in less than 72 hours so I think it would be intelligent to have a good starting XI in both games,” the manager confirmed. “I am not worried about (the effect of playing at home to Fulham last) Friday to Wednesday – but Wednesday to Saturday, yes.
“We will see (if I make any changes against City). I have not decided yet. We will see who recovers the best. I will also talk with the medical staff. We will decide the starting XI (on Tuesday).”
City ran rampant in the reverse fixture at London Stadium in November when David Silva, Sane and Sterling all scored in the opening 34 minutes. Sane completed his brace and the 4-0 thumping with a stoppage-time goal, giving the reigning champions their sixth victory on the trot over the Irons in all competitions.
West Ham have just two wins in 19 matches at Manchester City in the Premier League era (2-2-15), though the last one came when Pellegrini was in charge of the Cityzens in 2015 as first-half goals by Victor Moses and Diafra Sakho powered a 2-1 victory. That stands as West Ham’s lone win in the last 14 visits (1-1-12).
One of Guardiola’s best traits is his ruthlessness. No one would have blinked had he let Aro Muric start the Carabao Cup final after the No. 2 keeper backstopped City all the way to Wembley, but with trophies come tough choices. And Guardiola made his in turning to Ederson, who delivered with a clean sheet and a key penalty save to help the Cityzens repeat.
In a way, that is what awaits Pellegrini at the Etihad. It will be smiles and sunshine for the Chilean all the way to kickoff. And then, unfortunately, it will likely be 90 minutes of hell and brimstone as Guardiola looks to re-ignite his side’s ruthless offence.
West Ham looked so abjectly awful in the reverse fixture that literally any performance will be better than the one at London Stadium in November, but any chance the Irons have in taking a point from this game will depend on their spine starting with Fabianski, but especially in the midfield with Rice, Snodgrass and Noble, with perhaps one-time City playmaker Samir Nasri available on the bench.
There may be moments where the Irons can try to overrun Gundogan in the midfield as he steps into Fernandinho’s spot, and City’s spine is not as steely if it is Kompany and Otamendi in central defence compared to Stones and Laporte. It is still somewhat jarring that Fernandinho is arguably Guardiola’s most irreplacable player in the first XI, with varying degrees of high quality around the Brasilian in a two-deep roster.
The positioning duels between Arnautovic and Kompany will be something to watch if West Ham can get the ball out wide to Anderson and Antonio for both to pump crosses into the penalty area.
But this match will also be about City exposing West Ham’s frailties at the back. The Irons have just one clean sheet in their last 10 league matches and have been outscored 8-1 in taking just one point from their last four road matches. While the champions may have some depth issues up front without Gabriel Jesus, they still have Aguero and Sane, and a fresh Riyad Mahrez to throw into the mix after he was an unused substitute at Wembley due to injury replacement needs.
All in all, it looks to be a match about the status quo. City supporters will warmly greet “This Charming Man,” who rightfully should be fond of his time in charge. And then the current iteration of the club he left behind will go about their business and successfully continue their remorseless stalking of Liverpool for the Premier League lead.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 4, West Ham United 1.
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