Manchester City travel to France on Wednesday to take on Ligue 1 leaders Monaco in the Champions League round of 16 second leg. Pep Guardiola’s side have been in fine form since the breathless 5-3 victory at the Etihad three weeks ago and have also progressed to the FA Cup semi-final in the process.
However, despite a run of encouraging defensive performances – particularly on the road, where the Blues have kept six consecutive clean sheets since being dismantled at Everton in January – City, historically, don’t defend well in Europe.
In 47 Champions League games, the Blues have kept just eight clean sheets – four at home and four away. It’s a damning statistic given the potency of the opposition standing between City and a place in the quarter finals.
Monaco have plundered an incredible 123 goals in all competitions this season – 19 of which have come in Europe, with the French outfit having progressed through two qualifying rounds to reach the group stage.
This is a game where City expect to be under the cosh for large periods as Monaco look to overturn the two goal deficit, safe in the knowledge that they have three away goals to play with.
However, an area that Guardiola will potentially try to exploit will be midfield, with the hosts likely to line up in a 4-4-2 formation. Possession is not the main strength for Leonardo Jardim’s side, who have seen less of the ball at home in this season’s Champions League than City have on the road.
Integral to Monaco’s vibrant style of play is blistering speed on the counter attack, pace which is provided on the flanks by Thomas Lemar the mercurial Bernardo Silva. The deadly duo caused City endless problems in the first leg with their exceptional dribbling and pinpoint crossing, in addition to the goalscoring prowess of Radamel Falcao and Kylian Mbappe.
Falcao, the Blues’ tormenter in chief in Manchester, is a doubt for Wednesday night after sustaining a hip injury in Monaco’s 2-1 victory over Bordeaux at the weekend and is in a race against time to be fit for City’s visit.
Should the Colombian fail to recover in time, Jardim will be able to call upon Valere Germain to lead the line. Three of Germain’s 13 goals this season have come in the Champions League, but the Frenchman has scored just twice in his last ten games in all competitions.
Mbappe, on the other hand, is in scintillating form and has eight goals in his last ten outings – including a hat-trick against Metz last month. Lemar and Silva are also looking particularly impervious, laying on five goals and scoring five between them in the same time frame.
But, while Monaco are breathtaking on the attack, their defensive frailties are there for everyone to see – as demonstrated in the first leg when City exploited that chink in the armour to devastating effect.
The French side have kept 15 clean sheets all season – 12 of which have been at home – but Jardim’s side have conceded five times in their last four games since shipping five at the Etihad.
In Sergio Aguero, City have a striker very much in a purple patch. Prior to his brace in the 5-3 win over Monaco last month, the Blues’ Argentinian talisman hadn’t found the net for six games, but he has since clicked into gear with six goals in five outings.
After initially struggling to settle in Manchester, Leroy Sane has found his feet and is beginning to show the sort of form that prompted the club to part with £37m this summer. The German has only been on the losing side on three occasions this season – the last time in the 3-1 defeat to Chelsea in December, and even then he left the pitch at 1-1.
On the opposite flank, Raheem Sterling, despite his critics, has arguably been City’s most influential player this campaign and has had a direct hand in 23 goals. His 14 assists in all competition put him head and shoulders above all of his teammates, while he has already equalled his goal tally from last season.
The Blues can head to the French riviera knowing that they have the personnel to create numerous opportunities and players capable of putting Monaco to the sword. Saturday’s FA Cup victory over Middlesbrough was about as routine as it gets for Guardiola’s side. The eventual 2-0 score line was not a true reflection of City’s dominance from start to finish and, in the end, the result somewhat flattered the struggling Teessiders.
No doubt it won’t be reassuring to know that Monaco are one of only two teams to have progressed to the next round after conceding four or more goals in their first leg Champions League tie (Barcelona, of course, being the other). Jardim will be hoping that his side will be able to channel the spirit of 2004 when Monaco overturned a 4-2 first quarter final leg loss against Real Madrid.
Any such drama will almost certainly result in several more grey hairs and shorter than normal average life expectancy.
Brace yourself: this will be a game played in Typical City style. Expect the pulse to be racing from the first whistle and fingers to be chewed right down to the bone by the time the referee calls time on what promises to be a pulsating cup tie.
Written by Chris Wildgoose
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