Venue: Riverside Stadium
Date: 11 March 2017
Referee: Mike Dean
Kick off: 12:15
It’s FA Cup weekend again, and City face a tricky tie away at Middlesbrough for the right to play at Wembley in April’s semi-finals. With City on a long unbeaten run, Pep Guardiola will be hoping for a relatively painless trip to the North-East; so, what are the talking points ahead of the game?
Rest Players at your Peril
I’m not going to mince my words – I thought that Pep got it all wrong on Wednesday night. Football is all about results, so had City won the game there would be no need to criticise Pep or his team selection. However, we didn’t, so there is. At the end of the day, regardless of the fixtures we had coming up, Stoke was also an important fixture. I’m not absolutely against the decision to switch things around a little bit, but what Pep did was more than that. Looking at our squad right now, I’d argue that the four most in-form players are John Stones, David Silva, Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling. Only one of those four players started on Wednesday, with not an injury between them. Fair enough, maybe Silva needs a rest, rest him – but play Sterling and alternate it at the weekend. Sterling needs a rest? Play Silva and rotate it in Teeside. To play only Leroy Sané out of the four (who I thought missed Silva’s presence severely for 60 minutes) was a gamble. Ultimately, that gamble didn’t pay off. Resultantly, the very slim chance of a title run-in is now over. Wednesday night served another purpose too, it showed anybody who was doubtful that there is little depth in this side. Jesus Navas simply isn’t up to it, but with Sterling’s absence, walked into the starting XI. Kevin De Bruyne is struggling a bit too at the moment, but there is nobody to replace him with. As for forwards, Jesus’ injury was obviously unfortunate, but Iheanacho struggles to change a game at this stage in his career. At the Riverside on Saturday, City need to play their best players. At this critical point in the season, this is our biggest game as it represents our most realistic chance to acquire some silverware. Let’s hope Pep doesn’t shuffle too much and makes the job as simple as possible.
Kevin De Bruyne’s Form Needs to be Managed
We all know how unbelievably effective Kevin De Bruyne is when he’s fit and firing. Unfortunately, in the last few games, it just hasn’t happened for Kev. Against Huddersfield, it was as if a mere mortal had won a competition to play for City for the night; it really was a poor performance. Whether he was dropped at Sunderland or just rested, he only made a brief cameo, so we won’t judge him there. But on Wednesday, De Bruyne started again against Stoke, in a more advanced role than he’s been used to in recent months. Kev was essentially asked to play the number 10 role in behind Aguero. A role that has been occupied by David Silva in recent times for the most part. It didn’t go well. His passing was all over the place. But perhaps more concerning was the way that every move seemed to break down at De Bruyne’s feet. Now, there’s no need to panic, all players go through bad spells of form, and given all that Kev has given City in the last 18 months, he’s allowed a couple of bad games. Nonetheless, it’s down to Pep to decide how to play this without affecting the player’s confidence. Provided David Silva starts on Saturday, Pep has the option of either dropping De Bruyne or playing him in a deeper position. I personally would plump for the latter. Granted, he’s not as involved in the goalscoring side of things when he plays deeper, but he has an innate ability to control the game without having to pick the killer pass that David Silva finds so easily. Another factor could be Fernandinho’s form. I think the Brazilian has been relatively poor since returning from his suspension, and Wednesday night was no exception. I’d give Kev a run in central-midfield on Saturday at the expense of Fernandinho, but who knows what Pep will decide to do?
Our Biggest Game of the Season?
In reality, it’s very hard to argue that a trip to the Riverside Stadium is ever likely to be City’s biggest game of the season. However, this week it really might be. With City all but finished in the title race, there is a genuine argument that the game on Saturday is City’s most important this year. One of the things that City fans haven’t lost in the years following Sheikh Mansour’s takeover is the love of a good cup run. A day out at Wembley (or two if you consider the ludicrousness of playing the semi-final at the same venue) is enough to excite any fan, old or young. With City fans’ apparent refusal to collectively get as excited about the Champions League as we do domestic football, it makes an FA Cup quarter-final a truly excitable experience. With any luck, the players will echo that sentiment on the pitch and get the job done, placing City into the hat for the next round. Obviously, with Monaco around the corner, priorities are going to shift back and forth quite quickly, but City could really do without being forced into throwing all of their eggs into one European basket.
Middlesbrough aren’t exactly on a good run of form, so City need to take full advantage on Saturday. The crowd should be well up for the fight, and after our disappointing draw in midweek, ‘Boro might be smelling blood.
I’m expecting a strong City team, with a focused performance. I don’t think ‘Boro will have enough to eliminate City, so I’m going for 2-0.