VMC Preview: Watford v Manchester City
City travel to Vicarage Road to face Watford in the final match of Pep's inaugural season in the Premier League and with their Champions League qualification fate well within their grasp.
Whilst City sit in third place a point ahead of Liverpool, 3 points ahead of Arsenal and with a superior goal difference there remain a number of circumstances which could still result in any of these three clubs ending up in the first ever play off for a Champions League place. After Chelsea secured the title and Spurs cemented second spot the prospect of this scenario coming to pass remains the last best hope that those at Sky can pin their hopes on for their latest 'Super Sunday' thrill of the season.
The simple fact remains though that a win for City secures third place no questions asked and would ensure that Pep Guardiola and his immediate bosses can start their planning for the summer acquisitions safe in the knowledge that they can offer Champions League football to any of the myriad of players that we will be linked with during the 'silly season'. Securing automatic CL qualification apart from avoiding messing up the summer tour plans with qualifying legs to distant parts of the continent would also ease some of the disappointment surrounding Pep's first season. A proper review of the season is best left for another time but for now my school report for Pep is currently rated as a B+ and in the 'tries hard but could do better'. A win on Sunday would see me prepared to upgrade his final mark to an A- a decision not least tinged with some historical perspective.
Twenty years ago City finished 14th in Division One (now the Championship) - a sort of staging post before the slip to the third tier of English football and a turbulent, rollercoaster period which saw City relegated or promoted in each of the next five seasons. What a ride that was. Whilst at times thrilling and desperately disappointing, one moment stands out for me during that time and it remains a benchmark against which any failure to win all four domestic trophies and the Champions League in a single season is measured. It was the 88th minute of the Play Off final and Bob Taylor had just scored Gillingham's second goal...as I stood frozen in my friend's living room (I didn't have Sky) the future spread out before me...another season of miserable midweek away games at Scunthorpe or Macclesfield etc. and I feared City would from then on be doomed to the lower regions of the football league. I thought there was no way back and we would become like Preston NE - a team with a proud history in the game but unable to regain a place in the top flight and stay there.
So where we are now 'isn`t so bad. Since 2011/12 we have finished 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, and 4th in the Premier League and are on course to finish in the top four again (touch wood, fingers crossed etc.). This season will be the fourth consecutive season that Manchester City FC have finished higher in the league than the rags, indeed this will be the 5th time that has happened in the last 6 seasons. That always brings a smile to my face.
It has not been a perfect season but there is much to look forward to for 2017/18.
After a brilliant home send off for the City Legend that is Pablo Zabaleta the squad now need to get the job done against a Watford side that has been showing definite signs of having become detached from their manager...a situation which was confirmed as permanent this week when the owners sacked Walter Materazzi. Never mind barely escaping relegation or the five league defeats on the bounce I heard one comment this week which stated that his failure to learn English was being cited as a reason by the owners for dispensing with his services. Go figure.
Watford will be without the hatchet man Prodl who is suspended and should have had his marching orders in the reverse fixture for a series of late challenges but survived courtesy of the weak officiating in the game that I still hold responsible for depriving City of the services of Ilkay Gundogan for more than half the season. He was the victim of what became a pattern of persistent fouling which commenced as soon as City regained possession with most of the offences being committed high enough up the pitch for the officials to see them as 'just part of the game' instead of a deliberate tactical ploy where players disrupt the play with 'niggly' tugs, kicks and shoves. It was one of those just inside the City half that caused Gundogan to fall awkwardly, rupture his ACL, ruin his season and (IMO) deprive City of the sort of goals from midfield that might have seen us win a few of those drawn games...
Cathcart and Kaboul are out for the Hornets and there are doubts over Britos and Kabasele.
Aside from Bravo and Gundogan there is only a doubt over Delph for Pep & so I suspect that Fabien can pretty much start planning his holidays given the other players available. Aside from Zabaleta this fixture potentially marks the final appearances for several other players whose contracts expire including Toure, Sagna, Navas, Clichy and Caballero. I wonder how soon after the season ends these decisions will be taken. The signs are that Toure may well have done enough to earn a mooted contract extension but it remains to be seen whether Navas's 're-invention' as a full back is a stop-gap for the end of this season alone. Clichy likewise has featured quite a lot more recently and he too could be in line for a stay as he seems to fit the Pep mould of players who can be flexible enough to fit into his 'juego de posecion' philosophy. Watch this space...
I expect that Zabaleta may once again get a final run out in a City shirt and will undoubtedly he will receive the applause he so richly deserves. His humility, honesty, decency and all round professionalism shone through during his post-match interviews after the victory over WBA - if anyone wants to look for a footballing role model than you couldn't do better than consider Pablo Javier Zabaleta Girod. The emotional tributes that were paid to him after the game and the esteem in which he is held by his teammates and the fans was plain to see last Tuesday.
We thank him for his loyal service and he will always be welcome at Manchester City Football Club.
It has been a testing season. Starting like a house on fire the cracks started to show as teams adapted and weaknesses (often due to injury but sometime self-inflicted) were exposed. Injuries and suspensions took their toll but I have to say that my scepticism about Pep's comments regarding his players 'not being strong enough in either box' has been put to one side. We were profligate in front of goal at times and unable to be secure at the back and both cost us crucial points - the two dropped against Boro at home encapsulates this for me with Aguero missing a golden opportunity to make it 2-0 as the clock wound down....only for minutes later City to concede at the other end. And then there were the decisions by the officials notably the failure to ward the penalties for Walker's shove on Sterling (penalty, red card, probably 3-1) and Milner's clattering of...ooh, Sterling again...against the dippers (penalty, red card etc...).
But enough of this - City are featuring again on Sky's Super Sunday as they attempt to squeeze every last moment of excitement out of the Premier League season. They will be hoping for everything to go down to the wire whilst I, like most of us I suspect, hope that we go 0-3 up inside 15 minutes and end the game with a clean sheet.
Come on City!!!