14 December 2013

Man City Preview: Irresistible Force meets Immovable Object

Okay, okay, so Orwell would have my head on a pike for trotting out that old cliché (the one in the title, and maybe again for the one in this first sentence). Making matters worse, I'm not sure which of us is the irresistible force and which is the immovable object. Is Man City the irresisitble force, playing at home where it is undefeated and sporting a +27 goal differential? Are we the immovable object, possessing the best away-record in the league at five wins, one draw, and one loss? I don't know. I do know that this one looks to be a genuine barn-burner of a match, pitting the Prem's two toughest teams against each other, whether we're looking at home/away records or overall form.

First, of course, we have to pay homage to Man City's impressive home-record. They've averaging 4.14 goals per match while conceding a stingy 0.29. There have been a few cake-walks in there, such as a 7-0 win over Norwich, but there are also a few eye-poppers as well: 4-1 over Man U, 6-0 over Spurs, 3-1 over Everton. To keep a long story short, this one looks to be the sternest test we'll face all season, at least on current form. We've perhaps dropped off a bit, what with the Napoli loss and Everton draw, preceded by a couple of pedestrian wins over Hull and Cardiff. Meanwhile, Man City are fresh off a stirring 3-2 comeback win at Bayern (although Bayern hardly played with much urgency, having essentially qualified after two matches in a group in which two teams finished with three points) and are undefeated at home.

Of course, a big part of the build-up has focused on our cluttered fixtures: a Sunday match, a tense Wednesday evening match, and now an early Saturday start. Contrast that against Man City's somewhat softer schedule: a Prem match Saturday, a meaningless Champions League match Tuesday, and Saturday. City were able to rotate in a few players on Tuesday against Bayern; then again, so did we, with Ramsey and Wilshere sitting and Sagna out due to injury. I'm not one to gripe (at least, not excessively). Going into the match, it's reassuring to know that Ramsey, Wilshere, and Sagna are available, as is Walcott.
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On the right
It's perhaps those last two names that offer the most intriguing option. Starting Walcott along with Jenksinson can leave us too expose as Walcott does not track back very well, and Sagna's tenacity and versatility compensate for this. Assuming that Sagna is in fact available, we could then see Walcott prowling the flanks. He'd be doing so against Clichy and the defensively- (and personality-) handicapped Nasri, but Clichy iss rude enough to miss the game due to injury, depriving us of the potential delight of seeing Walcott run riot past two former Gunners. We'll probably see Kolarov deputize for Clichy, then. He's no slouch, but he does seem to lack the focus or positional awareness to fend off the likes of Walcott's pace. Whoever holds down the left side of City's defense, I like the idea of a fresh, rested Walcott zipping around back there.

Key match-up #1; Kos vs. Aguero (and/or Negredo)
Of course, football does not boil down neatly to 1v1 matchups, but Man City's 4-4-1-1 formation does resemble, say, Liverpool's 3-5-2, at least in terms of attack. We handled the Sturridge-Suarez axis quite well, I must say. The Aguero-Negredo combo poses challenges of its own, of course, and Kos will have to be on top of his game, as he's been so often. An aggressive but controlled display such as those he's put in against Suarez, Lukaku, and, yes, Higuain, will be vital to our chances.

Key match-up #2: Ramsey vs. Touré
This one is less of 1v1 matchup, but it's more a reflection of each man's vital contributions. Touré might be the only player in the world to cover more ground than Ramsey has. Both men should come in well-rested as Ramsey didn't play against Napoli, and Touré was suspended. Despite each man being deployed deep, at least initially, each is vital to his team's attack, both through chances created (22 for Ramsey, 18 for Touré and goals scored in the Prem (8 for Ramsey, 7 for Touré). Again, it's not a head-to-head, but the man who shows up might just hold the key to the match

Man to Watch: Olivier Giroud
Like Atlas, a lot has been placed on Giroud's shoulders to this point in the season. He's played just about every minute of every match, we've played, and he's done so without complaint. He's now gone four matches without scratching the score-sheet, his longest such stretch of the season, and I believe he's due for a goal or an assist, if not both. Man City is not without its weaknesses, and chief among them might be through aerial duels. They've yet to face a midfield as fluid and as creative as ours, and so we should see the handsome Frenchman latching on to the end of some nifty crosses, set-pieces, and corners. Whether Pantilimon or Hart is minding the sticks, Giroud should see some chances. Their defense is not impregnable, and I foresee Giroud exploiting a few gaps or making the most of the opportunities his teammates present.

I'd hesitate, after all, to bud Man City as invincible at home. In fact, their home-record may start to work against them; each win or draw increases the pressure on them to sustain the streak. I'm not saying that Saturday is the day that this streak ends, necessarily, but I do wonder if they'te ripe for the plucking. It wouldn't be the first time in recent memory that we suffered a loss only to bounce back in the next match. There's been a lot of talk of being satisfied with a draw; it would keep us six points head of City and, depending on their results, five ahead of Chelsea and Liverpool. However, I'm not quite content with the actuarial approach. We go in, after all, as underdogs despite our respective positions on the table. It's Man City's home-form that will be on trial, not our overall form. Therefore, I'm willing to be bold enough as to see us stealing a win through a Giroud goal and a defiant defensive performance. I'll just leave it at that.