Manchester City are just one point away from the UEFA Champions League knockout stages – but Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli will welcome Pep’s men with aspirations of ruining the party…
City are still unbeaten this season, while Napoli have been flying domestically and sit atop Serie A with ten wins and one draw in eleven games. Their European form, though, has been less impressive, with the only group stage points for the Italian side coming in a home win to Feyenoord. Their opposition, on the other hand, are firing on all cylinders and top Group F with a perfect record; the reverse fixture at the Etihad was probably the Citizens’ toughest test of the season so far.
Long-term absentee Benjamin Mendy will once again be joined on the sidelines by Vincent Kompany, who is apparently close to a return. Brahim Diaz is still out with a short-term problem while Phil Foden, fresh from his U17 World Cup heroics, didn’t train today. Presumably he’s been allowed a rest period to recover from the trip to India, but will undoubtedly be knocking on the door of the first team over the coming months. Oleksandr Zinchenko is also missing from the travelling squad, but the rest of the first team (and young goalkeeper Aro Muric) are present.
This is the kind of game where I’d expect mild rotation, with an important league game coming up against Arsenal and some tired legs on show for City in recent matches. Nevertheless, any suggestion that we can afford to play a ‘weakened’ team is way off the mark. We will, after all, be playing one of the best sides in Europe and complacency is not an option.
That means Ederson is the first name on the team-sheet. The Brazilian goalkeeper has had a magnificent start to the season and will be looking to continue that here after saving a penalty in the reverse fixture.
In front of him, John Stones is a must-play in the midst of the best season of his career. Having stepped up in the absence of Vincent Kompany (about which we have an article on the way), the Englishman will not fear Napoli’s attack one iota, and for good reason. Next to him, Nicolas Otamendi also picks himself despite the brain-freeze that gifted Matt Phillips a late goal at the weekend. While Eliaquim Mangala and Tosin Adarabioyo may not provide the toughest competition for places, it’s true, the form of Otamendi is such that even Kompany will have to fight for a spot in Guardiola’s line up when he returns.
Next we look at the full-backs. Kyle Walker walks into the team (see what I did there?) on the right. With four league assists (joint-sixth in the competition – who says he can’t cross?) so far this campaign, the defender’s attacking input could be vital after he almost scored his first City goal in the reverse game. On the other side, I think a surprise could be in store. Despite the fantastic revival of Fabian Delph, he struggled at the back against Callejon and co. last time out and there’s a possibility Pep may opt for more defensive stability in the form of Danilo for this one.
In front of them, there’s Fernandinho. Undroppable. Need I say more? No? Good. Moving on, then.
While Kevin De Bruyne, probably our player of the season so far, will almost certainly feature from the start against Napoli, I think it’s high time Ilkay Gundogan got an opportunity in a bigger game too. This would mean dropping David Silva, who is by no means in bad form – but he could do with a rest ahead of the Arsenal game and, besides, Gundogan isn’t exactly a downgrade. The German midfielder offers something extra defensively and has plenty of years of experience playing in a counter-attacking team (thanks, Jurgen) which could come in handy against a team who will try to dominate the game. Napoli need to win this one and we might as well take advantage of that by exploiting the spaces they will inevitably leave behind the midfield.
Speaking of exploiting spaces, pace will be absolutely key for City here and that’s why I expect Leroy Sané to start on the left opposite Raheem Sterling on the right. Sterling, despite being our top scorer this season, is well-rested for this one while Sané was excellent against West Bromwich Albion at the weekend. With 17 goals between them this campaign (we’ve scored 45 in all competitions – Sané and Sterling account for 38%), we cannot go into any big game without them.
Up front, I expect Sergio Aguero to be given another shot at becoming Manchester City’s all-time top scorer (sorry Gabriel). He’s been getting an awful lot of rest lately, including a full game on the bench at the weekend after playing the full 120 minutes against Wolves last week. A Premier League game without any minutes for Sergio Aguero is a strange sight for any City fan and I get the feeling Guardiola was saving the Argentine for this one. Hopefully he can play well and get the all-important goal that will write his name into the history books – until Jesus breaks the record in five years time that is (we can hope!).
Finally we go to the bench – which, with a 20-man travelling squad almost picks itself. I expect Adarabioyo and Muric to miss out, meaning Claudio Bravo, Fabian Delph, Eliaquim Mangala, Yaya Touré, David Silva, Bernardo Silva and Gabriel Jesus will make up the substitutes for Pep Guardiola’s side. Unlike many a City bench of recent years, there is surely enough on there to change the game should we need it.