The time has come again. At this point last year, the club were about to embark on a week of fixtures that could see them through to the Champions League semi-final and be crowned Premier League Champions. This time round we find ourselves in a very similar situation – two Champions League quarter-finals and a crucial trip to Selhurst Park in the title race, with the added incentive of the pre-eminent quadruple. Things are about to get interesting.
The first gargantuan game on the horizon sees us travel – no sorry, stay in London to play Spurs. Despite Pep Guardiola’s dominant head-to-head record against Mauricio Pochettino, he’ll undoubtedly be wary of the threats his Tottenham side possesses.
Having already overcome one of the infamous ‘groups of death’ against all the odds, beating Inter Milan and getting a vital result at the Camp Nou despite having had a single point in the group a few weeks prior, Spurs then eased past a Borussia Dortmund side that were in scintillating form domestically – 4-0 on aggregate. This is a Spurs side that has shown a lot more steel in Europe than the previous campaign which saw them blow a two-goal cushion to Juventus.
Pep will know what to expect from Spurs by now – he’s played them enough times. Their collective press combined with their ridiculously potent attack is something to be wary of. It’s exactly why selecting the right players to counteract these strengths is where the game could be won or lost. For example, playing Walker and Mendy might benefit us in matching the ground covered by the likes of Son or Moura, whereas bringing Fernandinho back into the line-up will most likely help to nullify Alli’s late runs into the box or Eriksen finding space for a shot.
Games like these are won and lost on fine margins and that fine margin could well be Hugo Lloris. We all saw what he did last week, though in order to keep this piece PG, I won’t go into details of what I thought about it. However, the one thing we’ve now been assured of is that he’s got a mistake or two in him. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the likes of Agüero and De Bruyne firing shots at him to see if he’s as talentless as we was at Anfield.
An added dimension to this game is the new state of the art stadium Tottenham will so kindly be hosting us at. The first big game under the floodlights at the new ground will no doubt rouse the Spurs faithful, but I find it hard to believe their fans will be going to the lengths of bottling our team bus on arrival – so the City squads’ mentality should stay in-tact.
The bigger issue surrounding the new ground should be one that unsettles Spurs more than us; the last time these two sides met in October the game was played on a pitch that wasn’t fit to host a school sports day, let alone a Premier League match. Alas, Spurs’ efforts to disrupt our usual mesmeric Subbuteo-like football were made redundant by an Ederson hoof ending in a Mahrez tap-in. If we can win playing that way, I dread to think what we could do on a pitch in pristine condition.
In all seriousness though, whilst looking at what weapons Spurs have that can hurt us, it’s equally important Pep reflects on his own squad and his own possible lack of aptitude a year ago. It’s absolutely paramount that a repeat of the Anfield quarter final doesn’t happen again. That night, the players let emotion take over. In the weirdest way it was almost a culmination of everything good we’d done that season – the 18 win streak, the Carabao Cup, the Champions League run – all coming crashing back down to Earth with a swift 20 minute collective lapse in concentration.
We find ourselves in a similar situation this time round; we’ve won the Carabao Cup again, we’re going toe-to-toe with Liverpool for the title, we’re in the FA Cup final and are strong contenders for the Champions League. This is all a testament to how bloody good we are, but we just need to approach it this time round with a great deal more pragmatism and level-headedness.
You could argue Spurs aren’t capable of doing what Liverpool did to us last year purely down to personnel. Their recent domestic form would also suggest that, however, Pep’s decision to rotate so vigorously over the past week suggests to me that he wants to have his best eleven in optimum physical and mental condition in order to bury this tie in the first leg.
Despite the repeated words from Guardiola about taking each game as it comes, it’s been evident since Fulham that he’s thinking way ahead of where we’re at currently. Against Fulham, Cardiff and Brighton, we’ve killed the game early in all three and took our foot right off the gas – it’s clear to me that Pep wants the players to exert as little energy as possible in order to truly go all out in games like these. Should we go to Tottenham on Tuesday and get a healthy win, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a much more conservative performance form us in the second leg.
Other than the short-term omission of Olaksandr Zinchenko… well, and Claudio Bravo, City have a fully fit squad for the upcoming tie. Since taking himself off against Fulham for precautionary reasons, Sergio Agüero has been training to start this game whilst Gabriel Jesus has led the line, but I expect the Argentine to start on Tuesday. Another rested player against Brighton who is arguably our most important one is Fernandinho – he’ll be back in to stifle Spurs’ collective press.
Another couple of questions surrounding the potential team is whether we’ll see either one of Benjamin Mendy or Vincent Kompany make an appearance in this one. The injury to Zinchenko definitely boosts the chances of Mendy getting the nod, whereas Vincent Kompany tends to be something of a special event for City these days, coming out exclusively for the big games. His physicality may be suited to dealing with Harry Kane more so than any of our other defenders.
Pochettino is well aware of our capabilities as a side, our ability to wear teams down or hurt them with a swift decisive counter. I expect him to try and get his side to absorb the pressure and try and sucker punch us with his pacey assets such as Son and Lucas Moura. Even with many urging Pep and City to be perhaps a little more streetwise than last year, I think he knows that it’ll be more beneficial to us in the long run if we can finish the tie in the first leg with a win. I suspect he’ll treat it like a league game and urge his players to come straight out the blocks.
I’m going 3-1 to City with goals from Agüero, De Bruyne and Sané.
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