The Blues are back! It’s been over 100 days since Manchester City played a match of any kind; and there will be no easing into the restarted season, as a fully-fit squad return to an empty Etihad on Wednesday night to face Arsenal.
When Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Agüero, and the rest of the Manchester City squad trot out of the tunnel and on to the pitch on Wednesday, it won’t just mark the return of English football and the culmination of “Project Restart”, it will also signify a new chapter in the storied history of Manchester City Football Club. A confusing chapter that we hope will be brief, but a chapter that nonetheless could include one of City’s greatest ever achievements.
It’s true that the Blues don’t have much to play for in what remains of the 2019-20 Premier League season. But there’s European glory on the horizon, and City fans across the globe should have all the hope in the world that when the dust settles on this complicated time, we won’t just remember this campaign for its three month pause, but also for the resilience this club showed in battling through adversity on their journey to a first ever Champions League title. That journey (re)starts on Wednesday night against Arsenal.
So where did we leave off? Well, City fans and squad members alike will be eager to finally move on from a dismal performance their last time out – a blunder-filled derby loss against Manchester United. There’s no question that, between injury complications, a grueling schedule, and perhaps some mental fatigue after two title-winning seasons, Pep’s men were worn down when the Premier League came to its abrupt pause. In the three months since, one would hope that those weaknesses have been overcome, and that the City team returning the pitch on Wednesday night will be fit, rejuvenated, and motivated to return to top form.
As for City’s opponents on Wednesday night, there’s a lot more to play for, at least in the short term. Arsenal currently sit ninth in the table – eight points behind fourth-placed Chelsea, with a match in hand. However, before the pause, a decidedly underwhelming season for the Gunners had taken a step in the right direction with the hire of beloved Manchester City assistant, Mikel Arteta. In fact, Arsenal had lost only one Premier League game since Arteta’s appointment – a 1-2 loss to Chelsea. There’s certainly enough attacking prowess in Arsenal’s attack to worry Pep, particularly in City’s first match back, and it will be interesting to see if an empty Etihad Stadium works to the Gunners’ advantage. Thankfully, we’ll find out soon enough!
So who will Pep Guardiola select to re-ignite the 2019-20 Premier League season? Here’s what we think…
Here is some welcoming news to Manchester City fans – barring any last-minute fitness setbacks, it would appear that Pep Guardiola has a completely fit squad for the first time all season! That’s right, with Leroy Sané confirmed fit to feature on Wednesday, and Aymeric Laporte similarly set to return, Pep should have the full City arsenal (no pun intended) at his disposal for their Etihad return.
As for the Gunners, while Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin looked set to miss the originally scheduled match against City, the pair appear all but certain to feature on Wednesday. Elsewhere, Lucas Terreira is a doubt with an ankle injury, and Callum Chambers is still some months off from a return, following an ACL tear in December.
No surprises here, Ederson will return in net, looking to place his dreadful performance against United even farther in the rear view – Kyle Walker should also regain his starting role at right-back. Given Arsenal’s pace in the attacking third, I wouldn’t expect to see Nicolas Otamendi starting at centre-back come Wednesday. Rather, I’ll predict Pep Guardiola will employ the more agile and foot-forward pair of Fernandinho and Aymeric Laporte. With that said, I’d certainly expect that the temporary substation rule will impact the defensive pairings as the match wears on. Lastly, I’ll slot in Oleksandr Zinchenko to round-off the back four.
Further up the pitch, while it’s possible that a fully-fit group of centre-backs could vault Fernandinho back into his favoured defensive midfield role, it’s difficult to imagine that Rodri won’t retain his starting place in that position. Elsewhere, it would be a shock to not see Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings against a vulnerable Arsenal defence. Completing the midfield trio is a more difficult decision for Pep Guardiola, particularly with the full might of City’s squad available for selection. After all, Phil Foden would be a welcome surprise, and it’s hard to argue against the inclusion of Ilkay Gundogan in a starting XI. Nevertheless, David Silva is the most sensible option here, and probably the most reliable of the available options, particularly in a match that might not see City at their well-oiled, mid-season best.
Up-front, I think Guardiola will make use of a familiar attacking three. Bernardo Silva will start on the right wing, surely hoping the time off has revitalised the form he enjoyed for much of last season. It’s true that the three-month break has provided City’s national team heroes with some much-needed downtime, and it’s fair to think Bernardo might have benefited the most from football’s extended absence. Sergio Agüero will predictably slot into the striking role, although don’t be surprised to see Gabriel Jesus introduced early, as one of five available substitutions. With a fully-fit Leroy Sané unlikely to be risked for a full 90 minutes, Raheem Sterling completes City’s starting XI.
Claudio Bravo, Riyad Mahrez, Nicolas Otamendi, Ilkay Gundogan, Benjamin Mendy, Joao Cancelo, Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden, Leroy Sané
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