Venue: bet365 Stadium
Date: 20 August 2016
Referee: Mike Dean
Kick off: 12:30
If a talented graphic designer was to recreate the famous ‘Evolution of Man’ picture and transform it into an image depicting the evolution of Manchester City management, it’s probable that Mark Hughes would be on the far left of the picture, hunching over like a Neanderthal. On the far right, suited, booted and displaying the posture of a prima ballerina, would be Pep Guardiola.
The pair may have crossed each other down the corridors of La Masia 20 years ago when a 22-year-old Hughes had joined Barcelona in a £2m deal from Manchester United and a 15-year-old Guardiola was learning his trade in the academy, but will meet for the first time as managers in a competitive fixture in Saturday’s early kick off.
Hughes, though by no means a complete failure during his time at City, resembled a kid in a sweet shop with £50 in his pocket in the year-and-a-half he was at the club. Hughes was the man chosen by the hierarchy to act as commander as the club marched into a new era where success would be demanded and money would not be an issue. And money was certainly never an issue for the Welshman; he spent over £70m of it on Robinho, Jo and Roque Santa Cruz in deals that still dwell somewhere among the shit and piss in the Greater Manchester sewers.
But in fairness to him, despite his over-emphasis on attacking football and outright disregard for keeping it tight at the back, he was the man to persuade Vincent Kompany, Nigel de Jong, Carlos Tevez and Gareth Barry to head for Manchester all those years ago. That foursome can claim more than most to have contributed to the success the club has enjoyed since the Abu Dhabi takeover. Hughes therefore goes down as a manager we have to thank and can’t really forget.
Fast forward eight years and the 52-year-old has matured as a manager. He has successfully facilitated a change in perception over Stoke’s style since arriving at the bet365 Stadium in 2013. Under the pre-historic Tony Pulis the most exciting thing you’d see running up the right wing was Rory Delap preparing to take a throw in, but now they have Xherdan Shaqiri, an immensely talented winger who was unfortunate not to see his career take off at Bayern Munich. The long-balls have been replaced by a style that is now much easier on the eye, with players like Giannelli Imbula and former Barcelona starlet Bojan conducting their play. The Bet365 arena may not be the dungeon it once was under Pulis – Stoke lost more home games last season than they have in their previous eight Premier League campaigns – but at least the football on show there is now worth watching.
So can Pep Guardiola do it on a cold and windy day at Stoke? The fascinating thing about Guardiola being in charge is that we have no idea how his system will fare against the various styles of football present in the league. Pellegrini’s single-minded attacking style rarely fared well against Stoke, but City under Pep, with more bodies in the midfield, have demonstrated that they are now less susceptible to the counter attack. It’ll be a tough first away trip for Guardiola but one he will have spent sleepless nights studying, no doubt.
This tie will be without England’s two top goalkeepers with Joe Hart now eager to secure a move away from the club and Jack Butland unavailable with an ankle injury. Hart, understandably at this stage of his career, is said to have no interest in fighting for his place at City and will look to leave on loan before the transfer window shuts. Guardiola confirmed in his pre-match press conference that he would allow the 29-year-old to leave should he hand in a transfer request, but also insisted that the Englishman would improve if he stayed at the club. Everton are the favourites for his signature.
Nicolás Otamendi was impressive in the 5-0 dismantling of Steaua Bucharest on Tuesday and will expect to line up alongside John Stones in the heart of the defence. Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov also enjoyed a pleasant evening in the Romanian capital and look set to start again with Bacary Sagna doubtful.
As for İlkay Gündoğan and Leroy Sané, the pair returned to training this week and could be ready to make their debuts after the international break.
Xherdan Shaqiri was unplayable in this fixture last term but is a doubt for Saturday with a calf problem. Marko Arnautovic however, another who played out of his skin in that tie, has overcome a thigh injury to be in contention.
This battle between Hughes and Guardiola – two managers intent on stamping their respective methods on their clubs – is sure to be a captivating one.
Predict the score:
[statsfc-score-predictor key=”D8SJIk7F6vySBuDaFQRSHy11xfbyCt18uXRinj2b” team=”Man City” date=”2016-08-20″ default_css=”true”]