Although Manchester City’s 1-0 win at Sunderland on Tuesday evening was a hard fought and scrappy encounter, it was always a game that the Blues were expected to be victorious in. Indeed, it was vitally important that three points were picked up when taking into account the series of testing and crucial fixtures which lie in wait for the rest of February. Although it will not be decided by these fixtures, the fate of the season is likely to be heavily influenced in the coming weeks.
With the Premier League title chase finely poised at the moment, with just five points separating Arsenal in fourth and Leicester in first position, City have an excellent opportunity to make a serious statement of intent in the run-in given that both Leicester and Spurs, who are currently third, visit the Etihad Stadium for the next two home games. Although City have only collected one point from the reverse fixtures this season they must surely be more confident on their own turf. Whilst Leicester have the luxury of being able to solely focus on the league, due to no longer participating in any other competition, both teams will go into Saturday’s match on something of a level playing field having both played on Tuesday night. Should City beat Leicester, the Blues will leapfrog their rivals to the summit of the Premier League. Should the opposite occur, the Foxes would open up a six point advantage over City, which is almost unthinkable.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs side come to town the following weekend. It is too early to ponder the specific and potential ramifications of that match but there is no doubt it is equally as important as the Leicester match. If City can get positives results in both games they would put themselves in the driving seat for the title. On the other hand, should they lose both matches, Pellegrini’s team would be swimming against the tide in the title race. A familiar feeling, no?
It is not just the Premier League that will be significantly affected by the fixtures in February. A week after the Spurs games, City travel to Chelsea in the FA Cup 5th round, then face a midweek trip to Dynamo Kyiv in the Champion’s League last 16 first leg before finally ending up at Wembley to face Liverpool in the League Cup Final on 28th February.
Drawing Chelsea away in the FA Cup is arguably the pick of the 5th round ties but any hopes Pellegrini may have had of selecting a weakened team in this round of the cup were dashed almost as quickly as the draw was made. Chelsea, under the stewardship of Guus Hiddink, are a different beast to the one that City easily dismantled at the beginning of the season and it is hard to imagine either side will be willing to go easy on the tie. Chelsea will be looking for a positive end to their dismal season with a decent cup run, whereas City will be going all out to send Pellegrini off with as many trophies as possible. That said, with City already in the League Cup final and still in with a shout of winning the league, the FA Cup is perhaps City’s lowest priority right now. That is not to say it isn’t important, though. The last two times City have faced Chelsea in the FA Cup they have been victorious: in the Wembley semi-final in 2013 and the 5th round in 2014.
The Champion’s League tie against Kyiv represents City best chance yet to progress to the quarter finals of the competition for the first time. Whilst it will be no walkover, the prospect is far less daunting than the Barcelona’s of this world, who City have faced in the previous two seasons at this stage of the tournament. The 3,000 mile round to trip to Kyiv is far from ideal preparation for the match itself or the League Cup final just four days later, but whatever the result on the night, nothing will be decided until the second leg which takes place on 15th March. Whilst it is not essential to win in Kyiv it is of the upmost importance not to lose.
With the League Cup Final against Liverpool arriving almost immediately after the trip to Kyiv, there may be a few weary City legs on the Wembley turf. Liverpool are also involved in Europa League action in the lead up to the final but their match, albeit a day after City’s, is played at home so one would imagine they would be the fresher sides of the two by the time kick-off arrives. No doubt a number of City fans will be worried about this match given the thumping that Liverpool inflicted upon City earlier in the season as well as the Blues’ relatively poor record against the Anfield side. However, in the hope of finding reason for optimism, it is probably fair to say that when Jurgen Klopp’s team won 4-1 at the Etihad in November, City were the worst they have been all season and Liverpool rightly took advantage of that. Most onlookers would agree Klopp’s team have failed to reach those heights either before or after that match. This is a cup final which seems impossible to call. If City turn up you would expect them to be favourites but as we all know, you can never be quite sure what you are going to get from City this season.
If there was ever a time for Manchester City to prove their quality, now is the time. If Manuel Pellegrini can get the best out of his squad in the next four weeks, the season could take a turn for the better. What will unfold is anyone’s guess but I for one am excited to see what happens. Here’s hoping the League Cup is the possession of Manchester City once again by the time Spring arrives…
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Written by Rob Toole