The Big Game Preview: Manchester City vs. Chelsea
It is a clash of the title favourites, a case of Manuel Pellegrini’s wits pitted against the foxy Jose Mourinho; the deadly and slick Sergio Aguero against the brutal and buccaneering Diego Costa; the (now) mature yet outstanding Cesc Fabregas versus the irrepressible David Silva. These are probably the main subplots to a game already being billed as a title decider, a rather premature moniker to a game which nonetheless will certainly have a bearing on the final league standings.
Considering that both sides failed to win in the UEFA Champions League with City suffering a last-minute loss to Bayern Munich as a former employee Jerome Boateng scored the winner, while Chelsea were forced to settle for a 1-1 home draw against a
Julian Draxler-inspired Schalke 04, the cream of the English Premier LEague must forget the midweek detours from Germany and quickly readjust to the bread and butter of the English game, albeit in the toughest way possible.
Costa v Aguero
Both have very good goals-to-games ratio, with Aguero’s 62 minutes to a goal juxtaposed
against Costa’s goal every 47 minutes attained so far. Both could not be more contrasting; the Argentine Aguero relying on slick skills and smart finishing while Costa
relies on raw power and consummate poaching around the penalty box which have culminated in seven goals in his first four games for the Blues for the naturalised
Both also face minor injury concerns with Mourinho’s suspicious statement on ‘Costa being unable to play two games in a week’ seen in some quarters as Mourinho trying to
deflect pressure away from players - as usual!
Aguero has slowly worked his way to fitness, yet despite this concern, has already hit three goals from mainly substitute appearances. Expect both to have a definitive statement on affairs at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
The Citizens were shut out by Mark Hughes’ Stoke City last time out, the result contributing to an astonishing statistic – that of a team that has only failed to score twice in over 70 matches at home. The previous occasion was against – you guessed it – Mourinho’s Chelsea last season when the Portuguese’ master class in tactics and positioning led to a one-nil victory. It may not have mattered much in the final analysis as City went on to claim their second title in three years, but Pellegrini will be aware of just how high the stakes are in such games while also aiming to restore the Etihad’s reputation as a fortress. One weakness that is slowly emerging from the Chilean who is nicknamed the ‘Engineer’ is his inability to tactically induce his side to attack better in the big games, with the recent UCL game in Munich a case in point.
However against Arsenal last weekend as well as in last season’s humdinger against Liverpool as the race for the Premiership heated up, Pellegrini showed an inability to coax his side into their full attacking repertoire. The bottom line seems to be that the Citizens
generally beat top-class opposition in games where they tend to dominate very
early or take a commanding lead.
As for Mourinho, the Blues strengths may, as a kind of paradox, actually be their undoing. Costa has hit the heights too early and City may well be the team to eventually shut him out. His hamstring which only enabled him to make a substitute appearance has raised the point often mentioned in the Spanish press last season – that his all-action game often comes at a cost to his own health and that this often cost his former team Atletico Madrid when he was forced to miss crucial games such as the UEFA Champions League final against cross-town rivals Real Madrid.
Apart from this, Chelsea’s incisive play going forward has left gaps in defence which enabled Everton to score 3 (albeit in a 3-6 reverse) and Swansea to claim two goals in their 2-4 defeat, while newcomers Burnley also managed to crash home a fine goal against a Mourinho team, something most football followers will know is not in the DNA of any Mourinho-coached side.
The Engineer Takes on The Special One
Tactically Mourinho seems to have the edge on the Chilean even from their time in Europe but every game is a different affair and City will not want a 5-point gap quickly turning into an 8-point chasm, even at this stage of a title race still in its infancy. Crucially games against your title rivals are not just for the points but will always put forward a psychological marker to your opponents, future and current.
The City fans will not want to hear the “Mind the gap” chant this early and Pellegrini knows he probably needs the win much more than Mourinho. Both sides have the biggest
and best squads in the league and it is a question of how their managers
utilize their resources at the end of the day.
Will Mourinho spring a surprise by tempering his side's natural tendency to go forward, then catching his opponents on the break as he successfully did last season or will the 5-point difference allow him to relax and play as his side have so far done this season,
that is, on the front foot?
Does he put in an extra defensive midfielder alongside Nemanja Matic to shore up a defence that has been fairly generous on occasion while sticking to his side’s attacking play?
For Pellegrini, the tactics have to just point in one direction – victory at all costs. He will have to coax his side out of the fact that they have not won a game in their last three encounters; make it clear to his side that a second home defeat is unthinkable and also rouse his still gentle giant Yaya Toure into the rampaging bull elephant that is so difficult to stop when in form. Like the big, powerful diesel engines, Toure tends to take time to gather pace but once his motor gets into optimum condition, you will want him on your side as opposed to playing against him.
Games like this are normally too close to call and I expect City to go all out to avoid a second consecutive home loss. I feel they will still have to settle for a point in another 2-2 draw.