Venue: WIRSOL Rhein-Neckar-Arena
Date: 2 October 2018
Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovenia)
Kick off: 17:55
Since Manchester City were defeated by a slick Lyon side little under three weeks ago, the self-destructive complacency which effectively presented the visitors with a game-changing three points appears to have been eradicated. Cardiff City and Brighton & Hove Albion hardly provided City with the stern tests on which Pep Guardiola’s men will be judged on this season, but the pair of professional performances, 7 goals and 2 clean sheets have certainly given them momentum ahead of Tuesday’s fixture. In a week in which Bayern Munich prepare to host Dutch giants Ajax and Borussia Dortmund’s yellow wall prepare to vociferously welcome 2017 semi-finalists Monaco, City’s trip to Hoffenheim is lacking the glamour of the other European ties being played on German soil, but it’s importance should not be underestimated.
Whilst City have now undisputedly joined the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus in the elite group of contenders to lift Europe’s greatest footballing prize, they have not always had it all their own way. Teething problems during a rapid transition period saw City twice crash out at the group stage in the 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons; in both those campaigns City failed to take three points from their opening two fixtures. It’s too early to question City’s credentials to reach the knockout stages of the competition, but it’s important to remember that Hoffenheim are in the competition on merit, and a failure to appreciate that could leave City in an precarious situation after two fixtures.
There are no new absentees to add to the list of sidelined City players. Kevin De Bruyne’s positive update on Friday was a timely boost ahead of Brighton’s visit to the Etihad, but City will have to navigate through a routine-looking group with their baby faced Belgian pulling the strings in midfield. The major question on the lips of City supporters will concern Guardiola’s choice at left-back: will start he Oleksandr Zinchenko or favour experience over exuberance in the shape of Danilo?
Zinchenko was in outstanding form on Saturday afternoon in an increasingly familiar role with both Benjamin Mendy and Fabian Delph ruled out through injury, but Guardiola was reluctant to start him away from home last season. A captivating performance on his first Premier League outing of the season suggests the Ukraine international possesses the tools to make only his second start at left-back away from the confines of the Etihad Stadium walls. A full 90 minutes against Stoke City at the Bet365 Stadium last season remains his only previous experience away from home. Don’t be surprised, though, if Danilo does indeed get the nod.
Hoffenheim may not be renowned for their vast array of talented individual players but, in their manager Julian Nagelsmann, they boast one of the most enigmatic characters in the game. With Hoffenheim fighting for their Bundesliga lives in 17th place, the board made a fascinating, if not foolish decision to appoint 28-year-old Nagelsmann to steer the club to safety in February 2016. Media spectators looked on with bemusement, writing off Hoffenheim’s chances of survival and scoffing at the absurdity of the appointment. But against the odds Nagelsmann led the club to safety and he continued to defy convention as he followed up his remarkable achievement with 4th and 3rd place finishes in the Bundesliga.
The opportunity to pit his wits against Pep Guardiola for the very first time will represent a landmark moment in Nagelsmann’s career, and his side’s form going into the clash would suggest City will need to be at their best to come away with the spoils. A 1-1 draw with Bundesliga pace setters Borussia Dortmund and a convincing 3-1 victory away at Hannover preceded their 2-1 home defeat against RB Leipzig on Saturday, but there’s no doubt the home side will take courage from City’s defeat against Lyon and aim to emulate ruthlessness they demonstrated in Manchester.
Hoffenheim came close to clinching three points on matchday one against Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine, but an 81st minute strike from Maycon deprived them of a dream start to their European campaign against a club with genuine prestige in this competition. The result has given them a solid platform from which to build a potential qualification charge and with a pressure-alleviating point already on the board this is a fixture which arrives at a decent time for Nagelsmann’s underdogs.
One to watch: The former Leicester City versatile attacker Andrej Kramaric. He may not have thrived at the King Power Stadium but the Croatia international has rediscovered himself in Germany with 38 goals and 23 assists since joining Hoffenheim. Under a manager who has openly spoken of a near-complete disregard for formations, Kramaric has honed in on his elusive qualities since leaving Leicester and his fluidity will cause City problems if there is no clear plan to deal with his threat. It will be his 100th appearance in a Hoffenheim shirt if he features.
City’s defeat against Lyon adds a compelling edge to a fixture which may otherwise have been dubbed as another routine win for the imperious centurions. Hoffenheim are capable of punishing heavyweight clubs at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena if they are underestimated, but it would take a fool to make the same mistake twice and Guardiola is certainly no fool; City underestimated Lyon’s threat and were punished – Hoffenheim will not be afforded the same privilege. Guardiola’s men will not be sluggish, complacent and ridden with fatal errors as they were against Lyon, and a return to winning ways without blowing away the opposition represents the most likely outcome.
I’m predicting 2-1 to City with a goal for Leroy Sané on his return to Germany.