Following the pulsating events against Schalke mid-week, Manchester City will face an even bigger must test of their winning mentality when they take on Chelsea in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley on Sunday afternoon.
With Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling having stepped up to the plate in Gelsenkirchen, Pep Guardiola will hope that the rest of his squad follow suit, after what was in truth a largely wasteful display in the Champions League.
However, the Blues will be fighting for more than just the Carabao, as without ever retaining a trophy, there is a chance to bring lasting change to the club. Indeed, knowing how influential it can be to win a title in February, the squad will be hoping to make a chilling statement of intent by putting Mauricio Sarri’s side to the sword. After all, what better way to set a precedent for a Premier League title defence than defending a League Cup?
Having been practically run out of town by that 6-0 hiding in the Premier League less than two weeks ago, Chelsea will surely be looking to exact swift revenge on Guardiola and his team, perhaps saving their season (and manager’s future) in the process should they emerge victorious at Wembley.
The signs do look promising for City though. Despite two Europa League victories over Uwe Rosler’s Malmo, Chelsea’s FA Cup display against Manchester United was a disaster, with chants of “F**k Sarri-Ball” raining down around Stamford Bridge as they slumped to a 2-0 loss. If that is anything to go by, then City may well drop a few footballing bombs on Wembley in recompense for Uwe and his dear old Grandad.
John Stones and Gabriel Jesus could return after Guardiola said they were “getting better” following their respective knocks, whilst Benjamin Mendy is known to be involved in first-team training and could make the squad. Fabian Delph seems unlikely given how Guardiola described his fluctuating health and training levels, whilst Claudio Bravo remains in rehabilitation from a severe Achilles rupture.
City Xtra Line-up Prediction:
For the first time in ages, the decision to rotate a keeper in a cup final does not feel like a pity prize. Aro Muric, still only 20, has kept City in the competition this season with his valiant penalty saves at Leicester, and it would feel completely justified to start him at Wembley. However, fresh off of a truly unbelievable assist against Schalke, Ederson gets the nod. This is a cup final, and whilst Muric has done valiantly, the goal threat of Hazard, Higuain and co. merits a different calibre of keeper.
When it comes to defence, there can be no messing about. Vincent Kompany is the first name on the team sheet for a reason. Our captain provides the class and calibre of player we need to throttle a side in a big game like this, whilst also sprinkling in a colossal header with that walloping dome when the time comes. Partnering City’s defensive stalwart will be its defensive future, with Aymeric Laporte fresh from renewing his contract until 2025 on Friday evening. The Basque Baresi has promised his best is yet to come, but having already shown such class in his first year at the club, I’m being left to wonder just how good he can become should he keep improving. That just leaves a full-back duo of Kyle Walker and Oleksandr Zinchenko. I’m not going to lie – my first instinct was to pop Danilo in at left-back, purely to keep Chelsea guessing and to add some sterner solidity to our weakest area of the pitch. That said, Zinchenko’s brief substitute involvement against Schalke indicates that he has earned Guardiola’s trust and, having performed so impressively against Chelsea last time out, there seems little reason to leave him out of the starting line-up.
Fernandinho starts. Following that wide-ranging and extensive debate, I’m going to stick my neck out and say Kevin de Bruyne won’t start the match. Ludicrous I know given the Belgian’s impressive form in the competition, yet both he and David Silva looked off the pace for large sections against Schalke, and with a league match against West Ham coming soon on Wednesday night, it would be foolish to run our best player back into the ground before he can have one game entirely at his best. Taking his place almost entirely on his own merits is Ilkay Gündogan. Though it might be something to do with the amount of flack Riyad Mahrez has been taking, Gündogan has either been flying under the radar or just really good for a while now, coming into his own when playing in the domestic cups. In his great form, he is more than capable than dealing with the likes of Chelsea’s midfield shambles, especially when partnered by the electric Bernardo Silva. Whilst the bulk of this line-up will seem similar to that which dismantled Sarri’s side at the Etihad, I feel the tactical change-up of Bernardo centrally will suit the undoubtedly frenetic occasion of a cup final, where energy levels are paramount.
The front line features three star names in their own right. Hat-trick hero Sergio Agüero returns to punish Chelsea for their tactical sins. Clutch free-kick maestro and “best wide player in the world” Leroy Sané will have balls as big as bowling balls after dashing the hopes and dreams of all his hometown buddies. He’s sure to have some issues to work through with that one – why not take it out on walking rake magnet David Luiz? And finally, perhaps City’s most important big game player since last season, Raheem Sterling takes to the fields behind his old house as he lines up in a Wembley final. It’s what dreams are made of.
City Bench: Aro Muric, Danilo, Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Phil Foden, Nicolas Otamendi and Riyad Mahrez.
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