Twenty-seven points separated champions Manchester City and fourth-place Tottenham Hotspur by last season’s end, but the opportunity for the Cityzens to avenge one of their few shortcomings arrives early this term with Saturday’s showdown at the Etihad versus Spurs.
(Potential Starting XIs)
Last season’s domestic treble was all well and good for Manchester City, but consecutive quarterfinal exits in the Champions League – in 2018 to Liverpool and last April to the Lilywhites on away goals – stand out brightly among the few failures of Pep Guardiola’s side in the past two-plus seasons. That stretch includes a staggering 201 of 231 possible points accrued in league play following City’s 5-0 season-opening smashing of West Ham last weekend.
Guardiola has insisted winning a third straight Premier League title remains the club’s top priority, but the memories of that wild night this spring still blaze. There was the utter chaos of the first 21 minutes in which five goals were scored as City tried to overturn their 1-0 first-leg defeat. There was the 73rd-minute goal off the hip of Tottenham’s Fernando Llorente that put Spurs level on aggregate and ahead on away goals.
And most infamously, the disallowed goal by VAR after Sergio Aguero was ruled offside in the 94th minute and negated Raheem Sterling’s goal that would have seen the Cityzens through.
It is all prologue now as City looked in imperious form to start this campaign. Sterling had three goals versus the Irons, clearing the half-century mark in all competitions since arriving from Liverpool, and the curious decisions by Guardiola to start Gabriel Jesus at striker over Aguero and Riyad Mahrez over Bernardo at left wing paid off handsomely as the former opened City’s scoring and the latter set up Sterling’s final two tallies.
It also served notice to everyone on City that no one’s spot in the starting XI is safe from match to match as Guardiola can choose a first-team international player at every position.
“The only problem Riyad had last season is the manager didn’t select him often because he had one of the best players of the season, Bernardo in his position,” Guardiola told the club’s official website. “Bernardo now knows ‘wow, Riyad is an incredible player’ and has to make a step forward. Gabriel came back with incredible speed and energy, so Sergio has to know ‘wow, Gabriel is in top form.’
“It’s the only way. If the players don’t play good then I have to think others deserve it. They have to play good, to show respect to the players who aren’t playing. That’s what I know from my experience as a manager to have the team together and focused.”
Jesus’ form does make for a selection dilemma for Guardiola since Aguero – who had a late penalty versus West Ham – is a bogeyman to Spurs with 11 goals in 16 matches across all competitions. Lost in the offensive excellence was a quiet yet steady debut in central midfield by Rodri as the 22-year-old looked at ease in front of the back four following his £63 million move from Atletico Madrid.
Another player who could make his season debut for City is right back Joao Cancelo, who was an unused substitute after being signed from Juventus as part of a £59 million move and swap for Danilo.
Tottenham re-tooled for the first time in three transfer windows over the summer, and this match represents a measuring stick to see if they have closed any of the enormous chasm between themselves and City. Spurs left it late in their season-opener last weekend, rallying past promoted Aston Villa 3-1 behind a second-half brace from Harry Kane in the final four minutes.
The England talisman’s first was a poacher’s goal on a ball that got to him after it deflected off a pair of Villa defenders, and his second a clinical strike following a feed from Moussa Sissoko. New boy Tanguy Ndombele had an impressive debut that included Tottenham’s first goal, but it must also be noted Spurs did not become incisive until Mauricio Pochettino introduced Christian Eriksen just after the hour.
“The plan didn’t work in the first half but in the second it worked very well. I’m very pleased with how we played in the second half. We dominated. We were much better,” Pochettino told Spurs’ official website. “After the final of the Champions League it’s always good to feel the victory. I’m happy with the performance. We played so well in the second half and deserved the victory. I’m very pleased for the players.”
Ndombele, the club’s record £55 million signing from Lyon, looked comfortable wide in Tottenham’s diamond midfield. Eriksen will likely replace Erik Lamela at the top tip should Pochettino retain the shape against City, and forward Lucas Moura should remain in the first team as Heung-Min Son — the hero of the second-leg Champions League tie with two first-half goals — completes serving his ban for a red card late last term.
A surprising omission from the 18-man lineup last weekend was centre back Jan Vertonghen, who watched from the stands as Davinson Sanchez was preferred in partnership with Toby Alderweireld. Pochettino must also decide if new signing and midfielder Giovani Lo Celso is up for a debut in such a high-stakes match after the 23-year-old’s arrival on loan from Real Betis, but Ryan Sessegnon’s first action will not be this weekend as the starlet is dealing with a hamstring injury.
Star playmaker Dele Alli (hamstring) is also out until next week at the earliest, and first-choice left back Ben Davies is likely to miss a second straight contest with a groin injury.
Tottenham’s 1-0 victory in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal was their lone victory in four matches against City, though the 4-3 defeat in the second leg will be hailed as one since Spurs continued to an eventual runners-up finish to Liverpool.
The Cityzens recorded 1-0 victories in the two regular-season contests, with Phil Foden’s fifth-minute goal separating the sides at the Etihad in a match played just three days after their exhausting second-leg Champions League encounter.
Spurs are 1-1-7 in their last nine league visits to the blue side of Manchester, with Eriksen netting a late winner in their 2-1 victory in 2016.
Odds and Ends, per Ladbrokes:
To Win: Manchester City 1/3, Draw 4/1, Tottenham Hotspur 15/2
Both Teams to Score: Yes 8/11, No Evens
Over/Under 2.5 Goals: 1/2 Over, 6/4 Under
First Goal Scorer — Manchester City: Aguero 16/5; Sterling 10/3; Jesus 7/2; Mahrez 11/2
First Goal Scorer — Tottenham Hotspur: Kane 11/2; Moura 10/1; Lamela 12/1; Lo Celso 14/1
Anytime Goal Scorer — Manchester City: Aguero 10/11; Sterling 19/20; Jesus 21/20; Mahrez 9/5; Bernardo 15/8
Anytime Goal-Scorer — Tottenham Hotspur: Kane 7/4; Moura 3/1; Lamela 7/2; Eriksen 11/2
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 3, Tottenham Hotspur 0.
PREDICTED HALFTIME SCORE: Manchester City 1, Tottenham Hotspur 0.
PREDICTED FIRST GOAL-SCORER: Sergio Aguero