Manchester City and Pep Guardiola will be reunited this Saturday as the club look to put a Champions League horror show behind them in efforts to keep pace in the Premier League in an away fixture against Cardiff. Returning to the Cardiff City Stadium for the first time since last season’s brutal FA Cup encounter, the Blues will be without the subtleties of Kevin De Bruyne’s free kicks for this match up, though they will likewise hope Cardiff line up free of the red midst that deservedly put them down to 10 men on that late January afternoon.
The Bluebirds still remain a sturdy opponent at the behest of Neil Warnock’s no-nonsense footballing approach, their physicality and directness having rewarded them with goals against both Arsenal and Chelsea in their last two matches. Knocked back by defeat for the first time since April, City will have to be wary of potential surprises down in the Welsh capital, hoping that an energised first response can put both game and doubts to rest to allay any fears of a growing trend in defeat…
Kevin De Bruyne suggested this week that he aims to be back for the Manchester derby in November, whilst Pep Guardiola remains more cautious about rushing the Belgian back before he is ready to complete the rest of the season. Danilo remains a doubt despite resuming training after suffering an ankle injury in the World Cup. Benjamin Mendy was confirmed be out injured with a problem with a bone in his ankle, whilst there are no updates on the condition of number two goalkeeper Claudio Bravo.
There wasn’t much he could have done in goal given the general horror show against Lyon on Wednesday, but Ederson still kept his name in good stock with an incredible fingertip save to push a potential third goal for the French side onto the post. A guaranteed starter unless stated otherwise. Not quite showtime for Aro Muric yet.
The defence proves a tricky situation. There were some abysmal individual moments on Wednesday (we’re looking at you, Fabian) but with Danilo still recovering from his long term injury and Benjamin Mendy sidelined with an ankle issue, it would be a surprise if both Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph didn’t keep their full-back slots. Cardiff are both simultaneously physical yet able to be cut open, so it will be a toss up of whether Guardiola favours the hammer or the scalpel to best subdue the Bluebirds. Given his good performance against Fulham last weekend, I would opt for Nicolas Otamendi to return in order to shore up the backline, whilst John Stones will return to give Aymeric Laporte a well-earned rest and provide a passing counterbalance to his Argentinian partner. Here’s hoping the pair can evoke the form they showed in the first half of last season.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. Without another qualified option in defensive midfield, Fernandinho has looked largely off the pace since returning from the World Cup, finally paying the price as he was dispossessed time and again against Lyon. Without rotation, this is a recipe for disaster. It’s for that reason I’d hope to see Ilkay Gündogan operate in place of the Brazilian come Saturday — if City hope to last the season, then the German would do well to get more game time at the base of midfield. With Gündogan thus unable to play further forward, it would make sense to reunite the silver partnership of David Silva and Bernardo Silva in central midfield. When Bernardo has played centrally this season, he has done incredibly well, even earning comparisons to his Spanish teammate beyond mere name. Until such a time that Kevin De Bruyne can return to action, this is surely City’s best duo to run the game.
However, Manchester City’s front line has seen idle comparisons become genuine contrasts as the 2018/19 season has well and truly got underway, most notably regarding the central striker position. It seemed that a sub-par performance against Lyon was enough to launch enquiry as to whether Gabriel Jesus has the quality to lead the line, and in a fixture that requires a cutting edge, there can’t be any other choice but Sergio Agüero. A thirty minute appearance on Wednesday showed he was fit after a knock, and fresh off of signing a contract extension, the Argentine’s spirits are high. Similarly, the spritely appearance of Leroy Sané has only done more to strengthen the case for a return to the starting line-up, which is surely enforced further by his astonishing 96 second goal against Fulham. The German will be keeping an eye on Cardiff defender Joe Bennet though, and will be sure to pack an XL pair of shin pads in preparation. Finally, Raheem Sterling was possibly the standout performer in a woeful bunch on Wednesday, and will hope to push the case further still for his higher paid contract with a continuation of his superb league form.
First name on the bench will be Aro Muric, who will have to bide his time likely until the League Cup tie against Oxford United. Alongside him will be Aymeric Laporte, Riyad Mahrez, Fernandinho, Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden, and Vincent Kompany. As always, City’s bench boasts unbelievable depth, yet it will be a case of how it is utilised should the score swing either way. If things should crumble and City find themselves a goal down at half time, it may well be time for Jesus or Mahrez to prove their worth to the coming season if they can contribute to a turnaround. More pertinently though, if the game is going positively, there can be no other choice by Phil Foden. The young Englishman needs minutes to warrant greater inclusion, and will hope to make an impact on the Premier League should he get the chance.