When the visit of Sunderland finally takes place this weekend, all eyes will be firmly on the dugout. Pep Guardiola will at last take charge of his first game of Manchester City. It’s felt like an eternity since the announcement that Pep would be joining up with the Blues, but the date with destiny has finally arrived. Needless to say, most of those in attendance and watching elsewhere tomorrow will be expecting nothing less than three points, which is probably fair, especially given our recent record against Sunderland.
It’s a chance to kick-start a new era with more than just three points, though. It’s a chance to send a message about the kind of football that this side is going to be playing (or attempting to) this year. A message that will echo to City fans and the opposition alike. With many players returning on the back of various international competitions however, who is likely to make the starting XI for what is surely one of our most highly anticipated league openers in history?
Perhaps the most high profile of absences for City is that of Leroy Sané, with Pep stating that “he is not ready, he has not trained with us”. On the other hand, John Stones is available for selection following his £47 million move from Everton this week. It is expected that Vincent Kompany will play no part in the game, with Nicolas Otamendi a doubt. Kevin De Bruyne is supposedly lacking fitness and may be more likely to play a role from the bench. Ilkay Gundogan is still weeks away from a return to fitness.
For Sunderland, Sebastian Larsson will miss up to six months of the season following knee surgery, so will be unavailable for the foreseeable future. David Moyes also confirmed today that Lee Cattermole, Jan Kirchhoff and Billy Jones will all miss the trip to City. On a brighter note for the Black Cats, recently acquired signings such as Adnan Januzaj, Donald Love and Paddy McNair could all be set feature at the Etihad.
A Makeshift Defence?
Working our way up from the back, you would expect to see Joe Hart in between the sticks for this league opener. Despite a less than convincing performance against Arsenal last Sunday, it’s hard to imagine that Pep is willing to drop his number one goalkeeper.
Defensively, things get a little bit more mix and match. With several defensive players injured or seemingly not fancied by Pep, the options especially in the centre of the park look bare. John Stones is likely to be thrown in at the deep end, though his central partner is anyone’s guess. If Nicolas Otamendi is declared fit for the game, I would expect him to start. If not, who knows? Jason Denayer, Aleksandar Kolarov, Fernando and Tosin Adarabioyo are all possibilities. In the full-back positions, one would expect Bacary Sagna to be a little behind the pace to start this game, which would surely signal a start for Pablo Zabaleta. On the left-side, Gael Clichy seems the obvious choice, ahead of his Serbian counterpart who may well feature at centre-back.
In midfield, things are again hard to predict. The inclusion of Fernandinho is a certainty. However, who should be his partner in what I expect to be a two-man midfield? Fernando and Fabian Delph seem the obvious contenders, with Yaya Toure looking more likely to occupy a place on the bench. I think Delph might just edge out the Brazilian, following a promising pre-season. Further forward, there are a few more options. With Kevin De Bruyne lacking fitness, David Silva looks likely to start. On the left-hand side, a battle between Nolito and Raheem Sterling might not be necessary, with the latter impressing on the right-hand side in last week’s loss to Arsenal. Jesus Navas looks unlikely to start, though could play some part from the bench. Oleksandr Zinchenko will be hoping for at least a place on the bench, following plenty of minutes in pre-season, though I would be surprised if the young Ukrainian were to start the game.
Up top, it’s hard to see anything other than a start for Sergio Aguero, especially following a well-taken goal against the Gunners last weekend in Sweden.
So, who will start Pep’s first game in charge? This is what I think:
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