Manchester City travel to the North-East this weekend to take on Newcastle United in the FA Cup Quarter-Finals – with a trip to Wembley at stake. Despite their reign as Premier League champions coming to a disappointing conclusion on Thursday, City are still in with a shout of winning both the FA Cup and the Champions League.
This is genuinely one of the hardest line-ups I’ve ever attempted to predict. I must have changed this starting XI a handful of times and I am still unsure on the team I’ve selected. There are arguments for practically every player available to start or be rested.
Here’s how we think Pep Guardiola will line-up in this one…
Firstly, the goalkeeper situation appears to be cut and dry given the cup scheme in place for our second goalkeeper. However, given the importance of this Sunday’s game, there’s a shout to play Ederson rather than taking a chance with Bravo. This is the only piece of domestic silverware currently available and surely we can leave nothing to chance. Even with this palpable hesitation, I do believe Pep will go with Claudio Bravo out of respect for his previous performances in cup ties.
Now onto the defence. Given the sporadic scenes of shambolic defending throughout the Chelsea game, there appears to be no remedy to our continual defensive shortcomings. Since the league’s return last week, the sequence of games has lent itself nicely to alternating elevens. A strong side against Arsenal, Chelsea & Liverpool with relatively weaker sides against Burnley and Newcastle. With the Chelsea defeat rendering the Liverpool clash as a match for civic pride and statement of intent for next season, the Newcastle game only garners more importance for City.
Logic would dictate that if Cancelo has overcome his minor injury woes, he will start against Newcastle in order to allow Walker to rest for the Liverpool tie. Yet, Walker was one of the few players to come out with a positive performance against Chelsea, with the goal line clearance being the obvious highlight. Kyle Walker is one of the few to be physically capable of playing three games in a week and therefore, I would take the plunge with him to cover the counter attacking threat of Almiron, Saint Maximin and Joelinton.
At centre-back, Aymeric Laporte is an absolute certainty – which is presumably why he was withdrawn before full time at Stamford Bridge. Joining the Frenchman is another interesting choice as it appears John Stones has fallen off the face of the earth with no clear return in sight. I would like to see Stones play this weekend as I am still convinced the Stones-Laporte partnership has long-term potential. But given the physicality and set-piece dominance of a side like Newcastle, Nicolas Otamendi would appear most likely to join Laporte at the heart of defence.
I think it’s safe to say Mendy may have played himself out of this game. Even with his recovery pace, excellent crossing ability and only featuring for an hour against Chelsea, all signs point towards Oleksandr Zinchenko starting. The Ukrainian is solid, but players like Saint-Maximin, with his power and dribbling ability, will mean a tough 90 minutes for whoever is pitted against him.
The midfield conundrum still poses positives and negatives in equal measure. The double pivot of Gundogan and Rodri has worked in part to reduce the amount of counter attacks and long shots from the opposition; but the Chelsea game only highlighted the deficiencies within that partnership. At 35 years of age, Fernandinho’s presence at holding midfield is sorely missed. Rodri is adjusting of course and has shown his ability to be pivotal in our build-up & physicality in the central areas. His weakness in defensive transition, mobility and defending one on one in wide areas is still in need of immense improvement. All said and done, I do believe following his early removal against Chelsea indicates Rodri may start this game to combat the Newcastle’s physical presence in central midfield.
Phil Foden is another certainty; if his minor injury was a simple precaution that left him out on Thursday. Whether he starts on the left wing or as an eight remains to be seen. I’d like to see him in the midfield three with KDB & Rodri but do envision him employing a similar role as he did against Burnley.
Kevin De Bruyne is another must-start given the significance of this game. Again, playing a player of such importance three times in a week, with the assumption he will start against Liverpool, is a risk. However, we appear a shadow of the team we can be without De Bruyne starting and fully expect he will feature from kick off.
Both Silva’s failed to plant their authority at Stamford Bridge. Bernardo suffered understandably out of position, but again has failed to shine in central areas. Also, despite his unfortunate anonymity on Thursday, I feel David Silva will start against Newcastle given he’s started in the last two trips to St James’ Park.
The final two spots pretty much pick themselves. Riyad Mahrez has proved throughout this season, and especially since post-lockdown, he’s our most dangerous player. With only glimmers of incisiveness against Marcos Alonso on Thursday, I expect Mahrez to receive a lot of the ball in his battle against Danny Rose.
And finally, Gabriel Jesus will start up-front. Following the failure of deploying the false-nine against Chelsea, and Sergio Agüero’s absence through injury, Jesus involvement this weekend is simply beyond any doubt.
SUBSTITUTES: Ederson, Joao Cancelo, Taylor Harwood-Bellis, Benjamin Mendy, Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva, Tommy Doyle, Cole Palmer.
You can follow Rob on Twitter here: @notherView
Follow us on Twitter for live match updates: @City_Xtra