When Stoke City visit the Etihad Stadium on Saturday lunchtime, Manuel Pellegrini and his players could perhaps be forgiven for having at least half an eye on Tuesday night’s huge Champions League semi-final encounter with Real Madrid.
But anything less than a win against the Potters could put City’s chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League in serious jeopardy and they must approach all of their remaining fixtures with equal levels of focus and determination if they’re to avert the disaster that would be finishing outside the top four.
Prior to Wednesday night’s 1-1 draw at Newcastle, City had been having a very good April. They began the month with an impressive 4-0 victory away at Bournemouth and a 2-1 home win over West Bromwich Albion was sandwiched between two excellent performances against Paris Saint-Germain in Europe.
Last weekend, City wiped the floor with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and looked like they were in a vein of form rich enough to seal their place in the top four with games to spare. And when Sergio Agüero headed home his 100th Premier League at St. James’ Park, it began to feel like a foregone conclusion.
But as a great man once said: “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”
The rest of City’s performance at Newcastle was sloppy, dispirited and, well, complacent. Of course, the opposition have their own fish to fry and made things difficult, but City were bad and for the first time in weeks, their fans have something to be very concerned about.
The race for a place in the top four is as tight as can be. City are currently fourth with 61 points but Manchester United (who don’t play in the Premier League this weekend owing to their participation in the FA Cup semi-final) are breathing down their neck on 59 points.
If City win this weekend they will pull five points ahead of United, which could give them a psychological edge even if United will still have a game in hand. If City lose, finishing in the top four will be in United’s hands. Their game in hand is away to West Ham.
Of course, finishing third is still in City’s hands at the time of writing. Arsenal will be the visitors to the Etihad in the penultimate game of the season and if City can take six points from the games against Stoke and next weekend’s tricky trip to Southampton, automatic qualification for next year’s Champions League could be as good as decided by that match. Arsenal are away at Sunderland and at home to Norwich in their next two fixtures.
Whichever way you look at it, City can ill afford any more slip-ups this season. We saw how two dropped points on Wednesday night changed the whole complexion of the task at hand and it’s a little worrying to think that the Blues will probably have to win all four of their remaining Premier League games if they’re to make this season a satisfactory one. Even more worrying is the fact the Real Madrid tie will undoubtedly be an energy-sapping distraction from that quest.
The good news is, for possibly the first time this season, Manuel Pellegrini will have an injury-free squad to pick from and the way he manages his resources in the next few games could be the difference between success and failure.
David Silva and Samir Nasri were both notable by their absence at St. James’ Park and the latter’s ineligibility for the Champions League means he will surely be a key figure in what remains of domestic campaign. Vincent Kompany looked extremely rusty in the Newcastle game and it’ll be interesting to see whether Pellegrini sees the Stoke match as an opportunity for his captain to gain more match fitness, or an opportunity to give him a rest. He has plenty of options, but he must make the right choices.
As the 4-1 defeat at Anfield last week perhaps showed, Stoke’s season is as good as over as a contest and they may well surrender the three points to City rather easily this weekend. Then again, they won at the Etihad last season and tore City a new one on their ground in December, so their threat should not be underestimated.
Southampton away won’t be an easy game, and the Arsenal match could have a lot riding on it. City’s final game of the season is away to Swansea, who already seem to be in holiday mode. If City need to win that match you’d back them to do it, but you never know what to expect from teams with nothing to lose.
Progressing to the final of the Champions League would be wonderful and historic, but if it comes at the expense of a place in the top four this season, we’ll have no choice but to ask ourselves whether it was worth it. Needing to win the Champions League in order to qualify for it next year won’t be the worst situation we’ve ever been in, but having it done and dusted before the final would be preferable.
Stoke at home may not be the most glamorous football match we’ll watch this week, but it’s arguably the most important.
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Written by Dan Burke