Venue: Etihad Stadium
Date: 8 March 2017
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Kick off: 20:00
An impossible dream. That’s what City are chasing in order to win this year’s Premier League title. With league leaders Chelsea producing win after win, City just need to keep winning and hope for a miracle. It’s Stoke at the Etihad on Wednesday night, and the Blues need another three points. So, what is there to consider ahead of the game?
The Real Sergio Aguero Has Arrived
It’s March, and some could argue that it’s taken Sergio Aguero this long to start producing his best form. Others would argue that he’s hit over 20 goals, so how could Kun be ‘off-form’? The truth is, Aguero hasn’t had his best season, despite his goalscoring. It’s no secret that he’s not always done enough to merit a starting place under Pep Guardiola. It’s a decision that I was fully behind. Aguero simply wasn’t working hard enough, running enough and making enough chances for his teammates. In January, Gabriel Jesus joined up with his new teammates and he took to English football like a duck to water. This spelled trouble for Aguero, until Jesus’ unfortunate injury provided an unlikely opportunity for Kun. A few games later, and Aguero is cock of the walk again. However, he’s had to work for it. Against Monaco, he never stopped. I actually thought he was struggling to affect the game in the first half, but his work ethic was terrific and that was great to see. By the time the full-time whistle was blown though, Aguero had arrived. Two goals and an unselfish assist concluded the complete performance, that on top of his non-stop desire to retrieve the ball for City. In the games since, Aguero had been scoring goals, working hard and creating opportunities for his teammates, though I do feel that the latter is still an area that he could improve in. Last week against Huddersfield, I thought Aguero played his best game in a very long time; he was mesmeric. His hold-up play was perfect, his passing, dribbling and eye for goal were all present and his work ethic was the best that I’ve ever seen it. With this Aguero, City have nearly all of the missing links in place. Sergio will be hoping for a couple more goals on Wednesday, and who’d bet against him?
The Squad Has Momentum
The biggest shame about this season is the fact that City started like a house on fire but failed to build on it. The way that Pep’s side is playing right now suggests that we’d be a prime candidate for the title, and yet, we sit 11 points behind, albeit with a game in hand. It’s fair to say that there were a couple of months that more or less detailed the season in a few particular moments. Whether it was missed penalties against Everton, defensive errors against Southampton, or conceding a last minute equaliser to Boro, City have paid the price. Even winning two of those three games would have City closer to Chelsea, 7 points behind them to be exact (with said game in hand). Unfortunately, the title looks a more unrealistic target with every passing week, and City know where things went wrong. However, fast forward to the present day and City can’t stop winning. It’s not always been convincing, but the same slip-ups are not repeating themselves. Against Swansea, City battled to the win despite what looked like a killer blow late in the game. The games at Bournemouth and more recently Sunderland looked comfortable on paper, but City didn’t have things all their own way. Still, it’s win after win for Pep’s men. At one point not two months ago, City’s position in the top four looked precarious at best. Now, City have created a comfortable gap between themselves and those sitting just outside. With a win against Stoke on Wednesday, City could jump into second place – which is the best anyone could hope for at the moment given Chelsea’s form. Pep still has an FA Cup quarter-final to look forward to on Saturday, a game that must be taken seriously if City are to salvage a trophy from the campaign. Perhaps what’s most encouraging though, is how this form bodes for next season. Certain players are beginning to look the part in this side, notably John Stones and Leroy Sané. With another year’s experience, who knows what next year could hold. That is, after we’ve achieved what we can this season.
City’s Defence Is Oozing Strength
If you’d told me three or four months ago that City’s defence was ever going to keep another clean sheet, I’d have questioned you. Yet here we are. On Sunday, the Blues broke a club record by recording clean sheets in each of the last 5 away games. A record that seems even more incredible given how many goals we were shipping earlier on in the campaign. The biggest difference for me comes with a touch more consistency in the personnel. Granted, Pep still enjoys a shuffle as much as the next manager; but in the last few months, he’s kept things a little bit more settled. John Stones has hit his stride as a City player after an inconsistent start earlier in the year. Nicolas Otamendi’s form is still patchy, but he’s far more reliable than he was this time 12 months ago. The biggest myth regarding City is that Aleksandar Kolarov can’t defend. Perhaps his days as a left-back are over, I won’t disagree with that. Centre-half Aleks can play though, and it’s not surprising to see him feature regularly under Pep. His aerial ability is arguably unrivalled along the back four, he has a sharp pass and isn’t a bad decision-maker. If you combine the improvement of those three centre-halves with the fact that the fullbacks seem to have turned a bit of a corner, you get a nice defensive balance. Obviously, things aren’t perfect and I’m still expecting City to buy big when it comes to the defence in the summer, but for now it’s… pretty good. If anything we look slightly more leaky in front of our own fans, so that’s perhaps something that Stoke will look to expose on Wednesday night.
Stoke aren’t a bad side. The belief that the game is over before its started is the kind of attitude that lost City points earlier in the season. They’re not as much about stature and power as they once were, but they possess threats all over the pitch. Peter Crouch is scoring goals again too, so City will need to be on their toes.
I’m expecting a strong performance from City. It won’t be easy to bang the goals in, but as long as we see the same kind of attacking that we have in recent games, we should be able to nick a couple. 2-0 City, Aguero to score both.