This time last week, it felt like City putting all their eggs in a Champions League-shaped basket could be extremely perilous to their chances of qualifying for next season’s competition.
But a fair bit has changed since then. The 4-0 win over Stoke City coupled with Arsenal’s draw at Sunderland last weekend means the Blues’ chances of finishing in the Premier League’s top four now look a hell of a lot healthier.
Seven points from City’s final three league fixtures of the season will guarantee a third placed finish, but provided they win their last two games (one of which is against Arsenal) they can probably afford to lose at Southampton this weekend and still finish third on goal difference.
It’s for this reason that Manuel Pellegrini should approach the visit to St. Mary’s with one eye firmly fixed on Wednesday night’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Real Madrid.
Last Tuesday’s goalless draw at the Etihad Stadium leaves that tie delicately poised. A 0-0 might not have been the best result in the world, but Madrid’s failure to take an away goal into the second leg gives City a slight advantage. All they need to do is dig in and get a score draw at the Bernabéu and they’ll be through to the final, but doing so will require a monumental effort and they can ill afford any distractions between now and then.
City supposedly tried and failed to get Sunday’s game on the south coast moved forward to Saturday in order to give them an extra day to recover and prepare for Madrid, but Pellegrini can afford to give his first choice XI the entire weekend off if he wants to.
None of the back four who defended so well against Gareth Bale and co last week should play against Southampton. Vincent Kompany, in particular, needs to be wrapped in cotton wool and this should be a job for Pablo Zabaleta, Aleksandar Kolarov, Eliaquim Mangala and Martín Demichelis.
Joe Hart doesn’t pick up too many injuries but is it worth risking him in this game when the alternative is Willy Caballero versus Real Madrid?
The midfield will be a little trickier. Neither Yaya Touré nor David Silva will be fit enough to play against Southampton but Fabian Delph and Samir Nasri can both come in in their stead. Raheem Sterling hasn’t started for a while and this game would be a good opportunity for him to do so. Fernando and Fernandinho will surely both start at the Bernabéu but the services of one or both of them will probably be required at St. Mary’s.
Sergio Agüero cut a frustrated, isolated figure up front during much of Tuesday night’s game but City will need to score at the Bernabéu and it will absolutely imperative that Kun is at the top of his game that night. Kelechi Iheanacho should be given another opportunity to improve his already excellent Premier League goals-to-games ratio on Sunday and could possibly be partnered by Wilfried Bony. Agüero should be kicking his heels on the bench, at most.
Southampton are a good team, particularly at home, and fielding a weakened team against them could well result in defeat. A City win would, of course, be ideal and a draw wouldn’t be bad either, but a defeat wouldn’t be a catastrophe and City shouldn’t risk harming their chances of reaching the Champions League final by over-exerting themselves in what is a comparatively meaningless game.
Manchester United are probably the biggest threat to City’s chances of finishing in the top four now, but if Leicester beat them to win the league and City lose at Southampton this weekend, United will remain five points behind City and, you’d imagine, their chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League will be pretty much done and dusted.
However this weekend pans out, City should, for the time being at least, put all their eggs in that Champions League-shaped basket. Wednesday night’s game will be City’s biggest for decades, we can worry about the Premier League when it’s over and done with.
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Written by Dan Burke