As we reach the end of Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge at the club, the stakes perhaps couldn’t be any higher with Champions League football still not yet guaranteed despite City’s resounding 3-1 midweek victory over West Bromwich Albion putting them in pole position with a mere ninety minutes of the 2016/17 season to play. In spite of the several slightly outlandish sets of permutations floating around which could potentially lead to a play-off for Champions League football league season between City, Liverpool or indeed Arsenal, given City’s superior goal difference over both clubs you would think that even a point would be enough to secure third position and that all important automatic qualification to the Champions’ League group stages.
City, who are unbeaten in their last seven league games and have only conceded five goals whilst scoring an impressive eighteen goals in the same period of time, will be looking to capitalise on what has been a turbulent week for opponents Watford, who despite securing their top flight status for another year have this week decided to part ways with Italian manager Walter Mazzarri. Watford’s recent valiant efforts to halt Chelsea in their attempts to become the first Premier League team to record 30 league wins in a Premier League season may have caused minor concern for City given the club’s notable fragility at the back and Watford’s willingness to score as demonstrated in their eventual 4-3 defeat to Chelsea. However, City will be hoping to mirror their more convincing victory over the Hornets earlier this season more so than a reliance on spectacular late goals from the likes of Yaya Touré and Sergio Aguero as they did in their visit to Vicarage Road last season.
As expected City’s trio of Claudio Bravo, Fabian Delph and long-term absentee Ilkay Gundogan will remain on the sidelines and will not feature in City’s trip to Vicarage Road. John Stones meanwhile, after just under a month out of the side due to injury, could well make a welcome return to the first-team fold after coming on for the final fifteen minutes of City’s 3-1 win over West Bromwich Albion. City should therefore travel with more or less the same squad as Tuesday evening after coming through the West Brom game unscathed.
First and foremost and admittedly at top of the club’s priorities will be to of course cement Champions League status for another season. With this in mind any sentiment will be surely cast aside until City are in a position pay their respect and give a final run out to some of the club’s longest servants and player’s linked with moves away this summer.
Whilst Zabaleta quite rightly had his evening and final farewell on Tuesday, with the likes of Yaya Touré’s contract situation remaining unresolved and the long term futures of Jesus Navas, Gael Clichy and Willy Caballero amongst a number of other City stars seemingly undecided at present, could Sunday be another afternoon of goodbyes?
You would think that Pep will surely give the nod to the best eleven players at his disposal on the day but who knows, it could well be the final swansong for the likes of Touré, Navas and of course Zabaleta with a big summer of change in the pipeline for the club.
A need for simplicity
Guardiola may widely be considered as one of the league’s more inventive managers when it comes to tactics and squad selection but now more so than ever you would think that in a similar to Zabaleta’s celebrations following the 2013/14 league title victory, sticking to the status quo is imperative.
Yet for all of Guardiola’s attempts to adapt City’s backline from a four to a three and often adjusting player’s positions to fit to a certain type of system throughout the season, for the simple need of achieving Champions League football, I expect City to a field a much more conventional line-up with players set up in their natural positions to a formation they are most comfortable with, albeit with the odd exception.
Who will get the nod?
Although Otamendi has looked a much improved player in recent weeks most notably since Kompany’s return from injury, I expect the Argentine defender to be rested in place of John Stones who will be eager to re-establish himself back in the City starting XI line-up alongside Kompany.
With an overall need for stability at the back as City look for all the important goals to clinch European football once again, I can see Guardiola sticking with Fernandinho and Kolarov in both full back positions even if part of me really wants to see Zabaleta pull on that City shirt and make the first starting eleven in his final City match.
City’s midfield meanwhile you would think will be crucial and after setting a new Premier League assist record on Tuesday; an in-form Kevin de Bruyne will surely be at the heart of the City midfield alongside many a supporter’s player of the season David Silva.
Touré sitting behind the two in defensive midfield also looks likely as he looks to build on his midweek goal and make a further impression on both Guardiola and potential suitors with his future at City still very much in doubt.
Guardiola will be hoping that the club are this time ‘good in the box’ as they were on Tuesday evening but despite a hand in the moves that led to City’s first two goals, Sergio Aguero could well be benched in favour of a front-three spearheaded by Gabriel Jesus as a lone striker with Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling either side.
As well as offering a glimpse of what a life without Aguero may feel like, the electrifying pace of all three may well be what is needed against what could be a makeshift Watford backline due to a mixture of injury and suspensions.