As the international break soon comes to a close, Manchester City’s staff and squad will reconvene knowing that they stand eight games away from defending their Premier League crown. They will face stern challenges in both elite opposition and fixture congestion, but a miraculous recovery from a near-ten point defecit in the winter means that the title is now City’s to lose.
At the time of writing, Liverpool Football Club sit atop the English football league. Unlike previous times this season though, Jürgen Klopp’s side only perch there by virtue of a game in hand, played due to City’s deep runs into cup competitions.
In reality, the Blues remain a single point out in front. With Pep Guardiola’s men having sparked a minor Liverpool collapse when halting them in their tracks with a 2-1 home win at the Etihad in January, there is little to say that City have not engineered their own resurgence with the sheer force of will not to be defeated. It is sure to have played a part in Liverpool’s stuttering form as they have struggled to maintain energy levels into the second half of the campaign
The challenge now facing Pep Guardiola is to ensure City do not fall victim to a capitulatory streak of their own. Attentions will be drawn to the titanic effort that lies before the team in April, wherein they must play eight fixtures over three competitions in just twenty-six days.
However, confidence can be drawn from a similar run that City faced in February. Also in a twenty-six day period, the Blues faced seven sides but across all four competitions, including a Carabao Cup final against Chelsea. Whilst the April pile-up seems more precarious given a fascinating triple meeting with Tottenham Hotspur in both Premier League and UEFA Champions League matches, it is worth remembering that February presented its own unique challenges in top six opposition, hostile away grounds, tumultuous pitches and the stakes of silverware.
Nevertheless, City’s remaining Premier League games deserve a little more scrutiny. Let’s take a look at what fixtures lie ahead.
FULHAM (A) – Saturday 30th March
The only match left to play this month, it is safe to say that Fulham are possibly the best side City could face after the international break interruption. However if City’s own form is anything to go by, they may have more reason to be confident than any other team to have faced the Cottagers this season.
Not only does a trip down to London bring the prospect of facing the lowest ranked team in the league, but City’s record after international breaks stands as a current record in the Premier League, having managed six wins from their last six matches coming directly after an international break. These include a 5-0 victory over Burnley last October and a 3-0 rout of Fulham themselves in September, preceded by beating Everton 3-1, Leicester 5-1, Stoke 7-2 and Liverpool 5-0 over the course of last season. To confirm, that’s an aggregate score of 28-4.
Resisting the typical City spirit to say that would result in a 2-1 loss at Craven Cottage this coming Saturday, it would certainly appear as if the stars are aligning for a good first result for the coming run-in. Pep should not be complacent though – Liverpool came excruciatingly close to a 1-1 draw there in their last match.
Score Prediction: Fulham 1-3 Manchester City
Danger Man: Ryan Babel. In resurgent form for club and country.
CARDIFF (H) – Wednesday 3rd April
The first match of April is sure to bring a mixed reaction. Having been rescheduled due to City’s progression to the FA Cup semi-final, the match has been brought forward to now be played in the mid-week prior to that Wembley match against Brighton, something that was said to have angered Pep.
The upside here is that Cardiff themselves will have played three days prior to their trip to the Etihad in a punishing home game against Chelsea. Whilst hardly the easiest of matches for the Bluebirds, the erratic form of Mauricio Sarri’s side will certainly give the relegation battlers more confidence than a punishing ninety minutes in the fortress of the Etihad Stadium.
That said, Cardiff possess an irksome quality to grind out the odd unexpected result, as shown in their last home victory against Manuel Pellegrini’s West Ham. With a manager like Neil Warnock at the helm, there remains a slim chance that City could frustrate themselves if they’re not careful. The veteran is known to not be above a few shrewd moves.
All things considered, I still expect City to pull Cardiff to the side here. Being at home will be a massive bonus for Guardiola’s men, especially when the fixture comes at a fairly awkward time before a cup semi-final. If the Blues can remain composed and simply be smarter than Warnock’s men, this could be a good platform for the month to come.
Score Prediction: Manchester City 4-0 Cardiff
Danger Man: Joe Bennett. Keep him away from Leroy Sané!
CRYSTAL PALACE – Sunday 14th April
When it comes to the Premier League title run-in, this is where things start to get ugly. After facing Cardiff at home, City face the small task of disposing of Brighton in front of a Wembley crowd before taking on Tottenham in their sold-out new stadium in the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final. Then, and only then, can they make their way to Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace.
Were it not for a certain string of fixtures against a team on Merseyside, then I would come close to labeling Palace as City’s ‘problem team’. For consecutive seasons now, the South London side have gone toe-to-toe with the Blues and emerged with valuable points, both strongarming a 3-2 win at the Etihad to firmly dent title hopes this past December and ending last season’s record eighteen game winning streak the December before that.
Indeed, Roy Hodgson’s team have a ferocious ability to go blow-for-blow with the best in the country, as they have shown in draws against Manchester United and Arsenal earlier in the season. However, the encouraging factor will be that this has remained as elusive as Palace’s good form at home this season, as the Eagles’ away record is actually currently better than their Selhurst Park performances.
City will, of course, know better than to simply turn up and hope Palace roll over for them. There were signs of such an attitude when Guardiola’s men visited South London last season, albeit subject to injuries and the crunch of the winter fixture list. This occasion has the ability to bring similar fortunes should the Blues not remain on the lookout for the runs of Wilfred Zaha, the tackles of Aaron Wan-Bissaka or, heaven forbid, another worldie from Andros Townsend.
This result will heavily depend on the fixtures preceding it, as there is arguably no team more experienced in punishing City’s complacency in recent memory. Indeed, should Guardiola manage some tactical masterstroke and silence Tottenham in their new stadium, there is an equal risk that City could take their foot off the gas and be caught out at Selhurst as they could also expend all their energies trying to kill the game off.
This could very well set the tone for the matches to come.
Score Prediction: Crystal Palace 0-1 Manchester City
Danger Man: Aaron Wan-Bissaka. It will be vital to find a way around the young Englishman’s remarkable tenacity at right back.
Tottenham Hotspur (H) – Saturday 20th April
In typical circumstances, we would probably be debating if having six days rest instead of a full week off would impact a team before their next match. Instead, Manchester City will welcome Tottenham Hotspur to the Etihad for the second time in a week, having already played them in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-finals mere days earlier.
The culmination of a remarkable three-staged affair across two separate competitions, the Premier League clash in Manchester is sure to be fought tooth and nail… if indeed that’s all that’s left of the two squads in such a short timeframe. As such, City should expect to be on the upper hand when it comes to potential sqaud rotation, with Mauricio Pochettino’s side scrutinised this season for not spending anything on transfers for a whole season.
That rotation will likely be the defining factor in both this isolated match and the series of meetings with Tottenham as a whole. Not only will fatigue impact how Guardiola sets his team out on each occasion, but squad selection will be a key factor in how the psychological battles are won and lost. Whether that means, for instance, Kevin De Bruyne can be saved for the Premeir League clash and Bernardo plays both legs of the Champions League in his stead, we cannot even begin to guess until the teams first meet.
Spurs will be no pushovers, though. They certainly have the ability to punish City, as we have analysed in our recent Tactical Analysis piece, yet their own mentality will likely rely on how they sit in the race for the top four. For Pochettino’s side, progressing in European rankings will carry equal weight to progressing into European competition for another season, with the financial incentives of repeated Champions League qualification likely to outweigh a semi-final place this season (from a business perspective).
Whatever the result if the Champions League quarter-finals, Spurs will travel to the Etihad in the Premier League looking to do some damange, particularly when points are typically so hard to come back when City play teams at home. Should Tottenham manage to snatch a result, it will represent a crucial foothold in the battle for the top four.
Score Prediction: Manchester City 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur
Danger Man: Harry Kane. It might seem obvious but the Englishman is becoming more dangerous from deeper positions. He only needs half a chance to punish you.
MANCHESTER UNITED (A) – Wednesday 24th April
Call it what you want. Dogged determination, ‘The United Way’ or even sheer dumb luck. Fact of the matter is that Manchester United are playing a different style of football to the self-defeating pragmatism of Jose Mourinho. Ole Gunnar Solskjær might be at the wheel with his red blindfold on, but at the very least he’s managed to steer United’s parked bus off the highway to football hell.
Whilst that turnaround might cause Trafford natives and football journalists to wax lyrical about the famous Manchester United attacking football ideal once more, it is still slightly removed from reality. Whilst United have shown they can be more than the sum of their parts in great cup results against Arsenal, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, they have likewise shown that those parts remain unstable, struggling to beat Southampton and losing to Arsenal in the Premier League whilst being knocked out of the FA Cup by Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The trepidation here comes from the rivalry. Despite any comments about United’s weaknesses, a game at Old Trafford is sure to bring hidden aspects from both sides when Manchester’s bragging rights are up for grabs. Make no mistake – this is exactly the sort of game that United can get a result.
With bogey teams and European triple threats accounted for, this will be the objective decider if City remain in the running come the 24th of April. Win away against your biggest rivals with all the pressure on you? The title is yours to lose. It’ll be a balls-to-the-wall draw, for my money.
Score Prediction: Manchester United 2-2 Manchester City
Danger Man: Paul Pogba. A tricky player when playing with his trademark mix of freedom and conviction.
BURNLEY (A) – Sunday 28th April
There’s no time to rest having played your big derby in mid-week, as City face a gruelling away trip to Turf Moor four days after playing Manchester United. Say what you want (though perhaps not Sean Dyche for ‘Manager of the Season’) – an away fixture against Burnley is anything but an easy game.
Like the gravelly tones of their manager, Burnley are a side composed of pure grit. Just look at their first goal against Liverpool when the two sides met recently. Questionable though it may have been, the Clarets fashioned their chance as a result of their bullish play in the box, making Liverpool’s defenders and goalkeeper look like rag dolls. All it takes is a bad angle for the officials, and the goals will be given in lieu of any VAR.
I expect that this game will see City heavily rotate their XI, with the back-to-back Spurs and United matches having run the best of the Blues to their limit. It might be as a matter of physical necessity for Pep Guardiola, but Sean Dyche and his Burnley players will relish any opportunity to punish City’s weaknesses. Indeed, with several decisions having swung City’s way in the reverse fixture at the Etihad, Burnley might be more privy to ugly tactics.
Given how last season’s match at Turf Moor played out, perhaps City’s biggest strength is that Raheem Sterling has continued to develop into a proven game-winning goal scorer. If City can do their own brand of ‘smash-and-grab’ manoeuvre in breaking the inevitable defensive deep block and completely flooding the Burnley goalmouth, then I’d back the Blues to go back to Manchester with a good win.
Score Prediction: Burnley 0-3 Manchester City
Danger Man: Ashley Barnes. A complete workhorse of a forward, with the gusto to shoulder himself into a dangerous position.
LEICESTER CITY (H) – Saturday 4th May
Having flirted with mid-table obscurity under Claude Puel, Leicester City are seemingly back to being relatively decent again. I’m in no position to take the mick, of course, given how that supposed mid-table side embarrassed City when the sides met at the King Power in December. Yet with Brendan Rodgers’ return to the Premier League as their new manager, the Foxes are showing signs of transforming into a side free from the Claudio Ranieri imprint of that iconic 2015/16 title-winning season.
Adding a great midfielder in either window this season with the arrivals of James Maddison from Norwich and Youri Tielemans from Monaco has seen Leicester rejevnate themselves into a genuine attacking prospect once more. In fact, accompanied by Harvey Barnes, Demari Gray, Wilfred Ndidi, Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwel, the Foxes have silently become a side full of young talent, whilst retaining class performers in Kasper Schmeichel and Jamie Vardy to ensure nothing goes amiss.
Having made it through an insane April by this point, this fixture is potentially heavily dependent on City’s qualification for the Champions League semi-finals. Should the Blues beat Tottenham and qualify, they will welcome Leicester to the Etihad having played one of Juventus or Ajax at home three or four days prior. In the event that Spurs knock City out of Europe, the Leicester match will mark the first return to the Etihad since City’s Premier League home tie against Spurs.
In either case, the home atmosphere is sure to play a massive part for both sides. Whatever City’s European situation may be, this will be their last Premier League home game of the season, and with a tight title race ideally still in full swing, the Etihad is sure to be roaring the Blues onto victory. Leicester will surely recognise this and, surely in a comfortable mid-table position, will have little to play for but the honour of potentially handing Liverpool the title.
My bet? Raheem Sterling to star in the defeat of his old manager Brendan Rodgers. With ex-Celtic forward Moussa Dembélé heavily implying that the ex-Liverpool manager minces his words when it comes to his players leaving to pursue money, there would be a great bit of poeticism at play should Sterling seal the deal at the Etihad.
Score Prediction: Manchester City 2-1 Leicester City
Danger Man: Youri Tielemans. Has started to show signs of his famous Football Manager potential in his short time at Leicester. A cut above in his vision.
BRIGHTON (A) – Sunday 12th May
The final game of the Premier League season. An FA Cup semi-final rematch. Mere days after a potential Champions League semi-final. One week before a possible FA Cup final.
There’s certainly a lot going on around this fixture.
Finishing the season down on the south coast seaside is not exactly the worst way things could have gone, particularly when Brighton have a reputation as somewhat of a ‘nice’ team to play. Yes, Chris Hughton has got his side performing admirably and yes, the Seagulls have some good quality players in the likes of Lewis Dunk, Shane Duffy, Anthony Knockaert and Glenn Murray. However, Brighton are not likely to imtimidate City by any stretch.
Context is everything, though. You don’t need to tell a City fan what can be in store when you play a weaker side on the last day of the season in a tight title race, that’s for sure. Unlike that infamous QPR side though, Brighton are unlikely to need three points to secure their top-flight survival, and most Seagulls fans will tell you that another season in the Premier League will be more than enough.
There is a chance this game could have some added flavour to it should the FA Cup throw up any nasty surprises, but I would back City to get a win here, regardless of where they stand in any competition.
Score Prediction: Brighton 0-2 Manchester City
Danger Man: Anthony Knockaert. Always alert and up for a tussle. Plus, did you see that goal against Crystal Palace?!
So, there you have it. On the basis of those predictions, Manchester City will finish the 2018/19 Premier League season on 96 points. Whether that is enough to beat Liverpool to the title, only time will tell.
Rest assured that whoever wins the league this season is going to need a phenomenal points total, an excellent run of form, ice-cold composure and, of course, a good dose of luck, too!
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