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Manchester City v Chelsea: Pep Guardiola's men can lay down a marker ahead of Champions League final

Published on: 07 May 2021

Pep Guardiola and his abundance of riches at Manchester City are faced with a very welcome headache this weekend. One final push, and the Premier League trophy will be theirs again after just a season away.

It is only a matter of time, that's a fact. Their 13 point gap over neighbours Manchester United may as well be a steep mountain, and the champagne, as Guardiola has openly admitted, is already on ice.

All that stands in their way now is Chelsea. A win will be enough for City to get the celebrations underway.

But the dilemma they have now been dealt is a big one. Chelsea, after all, are City's opponents in the Champions League final later this month. Suddenly, what was already an important game has turned into a battle of wills.

It is an opportunity for the champions-in-waiting to lay down an emphatic marker. Guardiola is schooled in the ways of psychology in football, his in-depth knowledge of every single one of his players and their stories attests to that.

Therefore, he will know just how big a morale boost it will be for City to parade around and revel in their top-flight triumph directly in front of the only team remaining in the way of glory in Europe.

With that in mind, how will notorious tinkerman Guardiola choose to approach the weekend's game?

He may decide to field his full-strength team in search of that powerful statement, but might also shuffle around his ranks for the business end of this chaotic season.

In truth, it would be surprising not to see the usual star-studded array of names that have fired City to the summit not be handed another chance to shine.

The superb midweek victory against Paris Saint-Germain saw City once again line up without a recognised no 9. This is a tweak they have tended to adopt in big games, and allows for more flexibility and unpredictability.

However, a return to moulding an attack around a lone striker is expected. Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, who were thrown on against PSG, will hope to be handed a chance to lead the line.

Aguero in particular will be looking to make an impact as his time at City draws to an emotional close. It would be a fairytale story if the veteran ace were to score the goals that sealed yet another league title during his trophy-laden decade of service.

Guardiola may even choose to roll the dice and throw in both Aguero and Jesus from the off. They lined up together at Crystal Palace and, while City did labour at times, the former scored in the 2-0 win.

Out wide, Raheem Sterling has endured a mixed campaign and looks notably short on confidence. He was unsurprisingly dropped for the win over PSG and could even find himself benched again.

Riyad Mahrez looks certain to retain his place, though, after his heroic brace at a snowy Etihad saw City ease into the final with a 4-1 aggregate victory.

That may leave Ferran Torres and Bernardo Silva among the substitutes, although either are capable of seamlessly slotting into the team. The former smashed home City's second from distance against Palace and has caught the eye.

City have typically made use of three or four bodies behind them in midfield.

Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan will likely feature once again, and Phil Foden has done more than enough to keep his spot until the end of the season.

However, Kevin de Bruyne will surely also feature, meaning either of the three star names may have to make way. It seems unthinkable to drop either of them, but this City squad is stacked to the brim with talent.

Hoping to also muscle in is Rodri, although the now-flourishing defensive midfielder is likely to be given a more prominent role for the next campaign with Fernandinho's future not yet decided.

The beauty of Guardiola in knockout football is the sheer bemusement that greets some of his decisions. On paper, they may look bizarre, but in reality they often materialise into masterstrokes.

To label his shifting of his full backs against PSG as a moment of genius may be a step too far, but there can be no denying that his idea worked out.

Joao Cancelo, who has been fielded on either side of the backline this term, has a tendency to drift infield and this weakness has seen teams look to pounce. Against PSG, there was no danger of that with Kyle Walker recalled.

It is a straight shootout between the two of them for that spot, although both can play if Cancelo is shunted across to left back. Benjamin Mendy has flattered to deceive at points and is unlikely to make the cut against Chelsea.

As for Oleksandr Zinchenko, the versatile youngster is unlikely to keep his spot despite starting against PSG and delivering a mature performance.

Guardiola is also blessed with an array of big names at centre back. John Stones and Ruben Dias have built a formidable partnership and are likely to be paired together against on Saturday.

It would be foolish to rule out changes here, though. City have been known to drop in Aymeric Laporte or Nathan Ake at points, and both defenders will be quietly hoping for their coach to make use of his whole squad again.

In goal, Ederson will keep his spot with Zach Steffen, his understudy, seemingly only favoured in domestic cup competitions.

This is also theoretical, of course. Attempting to predict how Guardiola will approach every match is effectively like solving a Rubik's cube one-handed and with a blindfold pulled down across your eyes.

The last time City and Chelsea did battle proves just that. It was a big game, with a spot in the FA Cup final up for grabs, but Guardiola decided to raise eyebrows once again by shuffling his deck.

The likes of Steffen, Mendy, Rodri, Torres and Jesus were all handed starts in the 1-0 defeat. City were poor on that occasion and appeared visibly limp up front.

Foden and Gundogan were introduced in the hope of salvaging a comeback, but Hakim Ziyech's goal on 55 minutes was enough to bring an end to any hopes at City of a memorable quadruple.

With so much on the line this time around, Guardiola is not likely to repeat the same trick. He is expected to field all his usual big guns and command them to go full-throttle in search of the result that would see them win the title again.

It is also worth remembering that Chelsea are also in need of a good result this weekend in their mission to keep a firm grip on fourth place. They currently hold a three-point gap over West Ham.

So, there are prizes, positions and the mental advantage ahead of the Champions League final on the line.

As a result, there will be no need for motivation or speeches reflecting on the rich histories of both these clubs.

Showing each other just who is the boss before May 29 will be more than enough to spark one of the top-flight's most pulsating encounters into life.

May the best team win.


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