Following Saturday’s disappointing result away to Norwich City, Pep Guardiola’s men remain on the road as they head to Kharkiv to kick off their 2019/20 Champions League campaign against Ukrainian Champions Shakhtar Donetsk. City will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the awful Norwich performance and to leave Ukraine with 3 points in the bag.
Before the international break, City were enjoying terrific form, dominating each game from start to finish, and looking ever the well-oiled machine that stormed to back-to-back league titles, then along came Norwich City. To put it simply, City’s performance against Norwich was nothing short of abysmal; going forward the blues lacked their trademark ingenuity, yet whilst De Bruyne’s bizarre inclusion on the bench appears to be a key reason behind the uninspired attacking, the plethora of world-class creative talent on the pitch means that in theory, City should have had no problem breaking down a newly promoted side.
Whilst Norwich performed superbly throughout the game and deserved to win, it cannot be understated just how astonishingly dreadful the blues were defensively. Aymeric Laporte is, without doubt, one of the best defenders in the world, and following his injury, the fragility of City’s defence in just his first game out was remarkable to witness. City fans around the world will be hoping that this blip doesn’t become a trend, however, whilst Laporte remains on the sidelines, City possess an unfamiliar odour of vulnerability. Nevertheless, let’s move on to the inception of our upcoming Champions League campaign.
The Blues first met Shakhtar Donetsk in 2017, and City have defeated the Ukrainian side 3 times in the 4 meetings between the two clubs, with Shakhtar besting a second-string City side containing Eliaquim Mangala and Tosin Adarabioyo in a game that took place after City had already secured top spot in Group F. Whilst the standard of football in Ukraine pales in comparison to that of the Premier League, it should be noted that Shakhtar Donetsk have been in impressive domestic form, having won each of their opening seven league games, quickly establishing a 7 point lead atop the Ukrainian Premier League.
Whilst “The Miners” have enjoyed a solid start to the season, Shakhtar have been relatively weak defensively and have failed to keep a clean sheet at home this season. However, the Ukrainian outfit are in terrifying attacking form, averaging 3.29 goals per game in the league which as of this writing is the highest out of UEFA’s Top 10 ranked leagues. Shakhtar’s Brazilian-born duo Júnior Moraes and Marlos have notched 12 goals between them this season and the experienced attackers could prove a threat to City considering the Blues’ current defensive fragility.
Leroy Sané and Aymeric Laporte are not expected back until 2020 whilst the other notable absences are Phil Foden who has a stomach problem and John Stones who picked up a muscular injury in training on Tuesday morning and is expected to be out for four to five weeks. Despite a dreadful performance against Norwich, Guardiola is expected to name his only fit senior centre-back Nicolas Otamendi in the starting line-up against Shakhtar, and Fernandinho is the most likely candidate to accompany Otamendi in the heart of the defence. On the bright side, however, the Catalan has found himself blessed with full-back options with Benjamin Mendy and Joao Cancelo both eager to stake their claim in the starting XI considering Zinchenko and Walker’s fluctuating form. Eric Garcia has also travelled with the squad and the young Spaniard will be clamouring for some game time due to Laporte and Stones being sidelined, although he is more likely to feature when the Blues face Preston North End next week.
In midfield, despite being named on the bench against Norwich, Kevin De Bruyne is surely a shoo-in to start the game considering his blistering form, and the Premier League assist leader will be hoping to continue his hot streak in Ukraine. Rodri’s performances this season have been impressive; the Spaniard’s good reputation is growing week by week and Rodri will surely retain his place in the side whilst either Ilkay Gundogan or David Silva will retain their place in the starting XI despite less than stellar performances against Norwich.
Further up the field, with a congested fixture schedule in mind, Pep may be tempted to rotate his front three which could potentially see Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus starting the game ahead of Bernardo Silva and Sergio Aguero, whilst Raheem Sterling has become one of the few truly undroppable players in the City side and will surely feature from the outset.
City’s injury-plagued squad have been conveniently gifted what appears to be a very favourable group stage draw meaning that the blues could feasibly have the group won with 2 games to spare, and with long-term injuries to key players, Guardiola will be eager to achieve this. The difference in class between the two sides is evident and barring another upset, City should return to England with 3 valuable points and a great start to the 2019/20 Champions League.
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