Manchester City v Stoke City - Review & Match Preview
Review & comment
The international break is over. Thank goodness.
After an unconvincing performance which left most of the public seriously underwhelmed and the national stadium embarrassingly populated with fewer people than the NFL game staged the preceding weekend, England have qualified for yet another tournament which they have little chance of winning. Is there anyone these days who actually looks forward to the England team playing with any sense of anticipation? Anyone? It is like watching paint dry. Scratch that - watching paint dry can actually deliver a greater sense of satisfaction and at least a return on your investment.
Thankfully we can forget about that dross until next March when the serious football is interrupted for England to play a friendly against Italy.
Meanwhile, turning back to the Premier League……..City fans at least have been enjoying the last two weeks whilst they watch the football hacks actually try to explain how Pep Guardiola and his team of 'mercenaries` (™ the media) outplayed the Champions at their home ground and passed their first 'real test` (™ the media) of the season with flying colours. Much to the chagrin of many of the journos who can barely conceal their desire to see Guardiola fail or at least stumble, there was plenty of evidence in City`s proficient and solid despatching of Chelsea which may have punctured their increasingly fragile hopes of seeing 'Fraudiola` (™ the media) fall on his face.
They may have to concede - whisper this quietly - that he might actually know what he is doing.
Shorn of the services of Sergio Aguero, Benjamin Mendy and Vincent Kompany and with previous stalwart Yaya Toure consigned to a bit part role, City performed in a manner which demonstrated just how much the squad has evolved and been 'stamped` through with the quality hallmark of the coach who brought so much success to his two previous club sides. The performance was one which could not be dismissed easily and which perhaps might be better seen in the light of the context of events on the continent…….
That the emphatic defeat of the reigning Premier League champions came barely two days after Pep Guardiola`s previous club, Bayern Munich, dispensed with the services of world renowned and well respected coach Carlo Ancelotti seemed by and large to have by-passed the hacks in this context. Guardiola`s achievements at Bayern (3 league titles, 2 domestic cups, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA World Club Cup in 3 seasons) have previously been regarded with a sort of casual disdain. This is largely because they believed that he had merely 'fallen` into a wonderful position of having a magnificently talented players at his disposal and so success was 'inevitable`. This is the same flawed and shallow logic that convinces the bloke down the pub to profess that "my Gran could win the league with the players he had in that squad" - you know the type…… the rag, the scouser, the Gooner - we`ve all met them.
Ancelotti, a highly respected manager with a tremendous coaching pedigree, was at Bayern one full season and he was shown the door a mere five months after securing the Bundesliga title after a 3-0 defeat by PSG - a defeat which left them second in their Champions League Group. With Die Roten second in their domestic league, trailing Dortmund by 5 points, the board decided that action was needed. So they sacked Ancelotti. There is a lot of football still to play this season but the jettisoning of a coach with a clear track record of success so early on perhaps provides both a salutary lesson on the tightrope walked by top coaches these days but also throws into sharp relief Guardiola`s achievements in Germany and perhaps puts the lie to the belief that Pep simply had to rock up in his tracksuit and the likes of Ribery, Nueur, Robben, Lahm, Lewandowski & co would do the rest all on their own. They didn`t need coaching, just give them a ball and "let the magic happen".
Which is perhaps why the media chose to treat the 'inconvenient truth` of Ancelotti`s departure in such a low key fashion. It was so low key that I hadn`t realised he had been sacked until the middle of the international break. Guardiola`s coaching abilities have been regarded with a jaundiced eye by many and his failure to secure a trophy last season touted as evidence of 'just how much tougher` he was going to find his new challenge in the Premier League. His survival and success at the German club might perhaps now be regarded in a somewhat different light given their dismissal of a coach with such a strong track record and held in high regard.
The manner in which Guardiola's current squad of players dealt with Conte`s 'tired` Chelsea sent out a signal which is harder to ignore than the result itself - Pep has shown that he has adapted to his new challenge and can indeed mould players into a squad that is greater than the sum of their individual talents.
He may actually be a capable coach after all. Stick THAT in your pipe and smoke it.
This weekend City return to the hurly-burly of the Premier League and face yet another 'litmus test` (™ the media) of their title-challenging credentials - a visit from Stoke City. This may need some revision given that the manager responsible for this team being a benchmark of Premier League success has taken his thuggish methodology across the midlands to WBA. Stoke under Hughes are trying to make a fist of playing football and boast some talented footballers in their ranks rather than the giants so favoured of their previous boss whose primary mantra was intimidation. Stoke do still have that in their locker of course what with Ryan 'The Shirt Man` Shawcross still in their ranks but with Shaqiri and new recruit Jesé (aka Mendy`s knee surgeon) they also have an ability to hurt teams who don`t pay attention.
Stoke also went into the international break after a victory after defeating Southampton 2-1 at the Bet365 stadium. This halted a run of three successive defeats and two draws in league and cup and so they will be hoping it wasn`t a flash in the pan and I they will be very keen, I am sure, to burst City`s bubble at the weekend. What tactics Hughes will choose to deploy against his former club remain to be seen……….who am I kidding? I am fully expecting the deployment of a flat back 9 with an option for counter-attacks and set pieces which remains something to be wary of - I still have nightmares about Diouf`s smash and grab raid at the Etihad back in August 2014.
Last season City won the away fixture 1-4 during the 'golden period` of 10 consecutive victories but then only managed a 0-0 scoreline when the visitors can to the Etihad in March and so City`s talented & globe-trotting [over 106,000 miles between them] squad will need to be at their lock-picking best on Saturday.
The absence of Mendy will restrict City somewhat in stretching the pitch as much as he would liked, but Pep has shown that he can adapt his tactics and get the best out of his players and the squad as a whole. Indeed it has been noticeable this season just how much more 'together` the team has appeared as demonstrated by just how many players gather to celebrate any goal scored. How many times has the scorer been surrounded by all 9 remaining outfield players? Pep values the team work ethic very highly indeed and this is manifesting itself quite clearly all over the park from the pressing, the unselfish play shown by Aguero when in the past he might have opted to go it alone, through to the joyous celebration with whoever nets the end product of the team`s hard work. Any goal is a collective one in Pep`s eyes & it seems this attitude is rubbing off.
I for one have been pleased to see the City coach eschew any complaint about the loss of talents such as Aguero, Mendy and Kompany and avoiding the standard 'get your excuses in early` ploy which is so familiar from certain other coaches. "We will play with eleven" as Pep said before the Chelsea game after Aguero was ruled out 2 days before the biggest game of the season so far - another refreshing attitude which seems to have gone unremarked in the traditional circles.
His successful deployment of Fabian Delph at left back raised some eyebrows and it remains a work in progress with other challenges to come, but it has shown that the coach can get something from players that other`s shy away from because it carries significant risk - demonstrating that your trust in an individual`s abilities can enable them to adapt and perform above themselves. We await news on Delph`s fitness after his withdrawal from the England squad but the signs look promising as Delph fully participated in a training session shown on the OS this week. Although Aguero returned to training this week I sincerely doubt that he will be risked - a bit of light jogging is a far cry from the exertion and effort required in a competitive fixture let alone the likelihood of someone in a red and white shirt delivering a swift elbow to the ribs during the first corner or set piece. There are plenty of games to come and I am sure his return won't be rushed but it is great to see him well on the road to recovery.
This weekend sees City commence a run of four consecutive home games across three competitions with high flying Burnley next up in the league after City take on Napoli in the Champions League and then Wolverhampton Wanderers in the League Cup. Doubtless this will be regarded as another clichéd 'acid test` of City`s challenge for trophies………
But the thing is about clichés is that they are what they are for a reason and City will indeed want to ensure that they are successful across the board in this run of fixtures…..because that is what serious contenders do.
Come on City!!!
Opponent to watch - Opponent to watch - Xherdan Shaqiri. He has given City's left backs - well mostly Kolarov - a torrid time in the past and may prove a stiff test for stand-in full back Fabian Delph.
Referee - Craig Pawson (I know, I know....)
Assistants - Ian Hussin; Andy Garratt
Fourth Official - Andy Madley [Bobby`s brother?]
Stats** comparison (Premier League):-
Goals per game - 3.1
Avg Possesion - 63.8%
Pass Accuracy - 88.6%
Shots per game - 19.3
Discipline - 14Y, 2R
Goals per game - 1
Avg Possesion - 43.7%
Pass Accuracy - 75.5%
Shots per game - 12.7
Discipline - 7Y, 0R
**Stats courtesy of Whoscored.com
Blues fans were buoyed by the news that Sergio Aguero returned to 'light training` this week but I suspect this match may be too soon for his return to competitive action. If Aguero make the squad it would surely be a miracle and a risk so I am expecting him to only be wearing something fashionable in the crowd. Well, ok, in the very expensive corporate box. City will also be waiting on the availability of the 'revelation of the season`, Fabian Delph after his withdrawal from the 'Marcus Rashnaldo Support Team` (aka England) squad with a hamstring strain. Kompany`s fitness remains a doubt after he too returned from an assessment by the Belgian medical staff which deemed him unfit to participate in the recent international matches.
Stoke await news on the availability of Ryan 'can I borrow your shirt?` Shawcross and Martins Indi but will definitely be without the services of Ngoy and ex-Blue Stephen Ireland, the latter still recovering from a broken leg. Welsh midfielder Joe Allen is also a doubt having suffered a possible concussion during Wales`s defeat by Ireland in their World Cup Qualifier.
Potential starting XI, subs & formation
Walker, Stones, Otamendi, Delph
De Bruyne, Fernandinho, Silva D
Sterling, G Jesus, Sane
Bravo, Mangala, Toure, Gundogan, Silva B, Danilo, Diaz