W2W4 previews the Premier League action by highlighting its most compelling storylines as Man City host Man United with a chance to secure the title.
Guardiola’s selection headache
There were already whispers that Pep Guardiola might rest some of his key performers for Saturday’s Manchester derby, given the proximity to the Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Liverpool, but that now seems a certainty.
The 3-0 thumping at Anfield has made it a necessary risk. The other side of the gamble is that the leaders could miss out on what Vincent Kompany has described as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to win the title against Manchester United.
Kompany will surely be one of the players left out of Saturday’s clash at the Etihad Stadium, with as many as eight changes mooted for the meeting with Jose Mourinho’s side. It is an extraordinary twist in a season that, until recently, had largely been straightforward for Guardiola and his players. But at this stage of the campaign, sacrifices must be made to compete on all remaining fronts. Ultimately the question is this: What would be more memorable, more defining: Premier League and Champions League glory or a title celebration against your fiercest rivals?
The pursuit of European success isn’t the biggest priority for many City fans, who have had a curious relationship with the Champions League over the past few seasons. The club were charged by UEFA after supporters booed the tournament anthem in 2015, while attendances for the competition haven’t always reached capacity. That shouldn’t perturb Guardiola, however, who is seeking his first Champions League success since 2011, having failed to lift the trophy during his three seasons at Bayern Munich.
Guardiola will also be confident that he has the squad depth to cope with the challenge presented by United. The seven players on the bench at Anfield — Raheem Sterling, Danilo, Claudio Bravo, Bernardo Silva, Oleksandr Zinchenko, John Stones and Fabian Delph — would be starters at most Premier League teams and possess the quality to prove more than capable deputies as City look to wrap up a famous title triumph.
Mourinho is likely to try to kill the game from the start, of course, forcing City to wait another week. The only real shame is if the supporters are deprived of what should be a fantastic spectacle. In a contest characterised by such febrile emotion, pragmatism will probably rule on both sides.
Will Liverpool’s stand-ins impress?
Liverpool have a derby of their own to negotiate on Saturday, but it will be a much easier decision for Jurgen Klopp to rest his star players. The manager will know that, despite a commanding first-leg performance, a 3-0 lead could soon evaporate if City produce their best football on Tuesday. It is only seven months since Liverpool lost 5-0 at the Etihad Stadium, after all.
Klopp’s squad rotation has been criticised in the past, but few are likely to question his motives, even when Merseyside pride is at stake against Everton. Mohamed Salah will almost certainly be out after undergoing a scan on his groin injury, while an afternoon on the bench should ensure Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane are fully fit for the City rematch.
It may be difficult for Klopp to make too many changes, given his current list of absentees, but the likes of Dominic Solanke, Nathaniel Clyne and Danny Ings could all be given a chance to play their part. Solanke struggled in his second-half cameo against City, but, if he can score his first goal for Liverpool at Goodison Park, it would ignite the 20-year-old’s career at the club.
What now for Chelsea?
After defeat to Tottenham left Chelsea eight points adrift of fourth, time has seemingly run out for the Blues to steal a place in next season’s Champions League. It marks a miserable end to Antonio Conte’s reign at the club, with Gianluca Vialli saying his compatriot “can’t wait to leave” in the summer.
Conte may ponder how he has reached this juncture ahead of Sunday’s clash with West Ham, his first opponent in the Premier League back in August 2016. Diego Costa scored an 89th-minute winner against the Hammers on that occasion, and Chelsea’s failure to replace the striker has been one of the key points of conflict this season.
The Blues still have an FA Cup semifinal to look forward to, but it will be interesting to see how they react to the Spurs setback at Stamford Bridge. Can Conte still inspire the dressing room when they know his exit is inevitable? With more defeats than victories over the past two months, the Italian’s powers are waning.
Kane on the comeback trail
It was perhaps even more painful for Chelsea that Spurs managed to win at Stamford Bridge without their most important player, Harry Kane. The striker came off the bench for the last 15 minutes of his team’s victory, and will continue his comeback from injury at Stoke.
It’s unlikely Kane will start at the Bet365 Stadium, but Gareth Southgate in particular will have been delighted to see him back on the pitch last weekend. Kane scored twice in a 5-1 thrashing of Stoke in December, on his way to finishing as the highest scorer in Europe’s top five leagues in 2017, and Mauricio Pochettino will no doubt call on him again if his team need a goal on Saturday.
Hughes’ reputation on the line
“I don’t do relegation,” said Mark Hughes in December, just three weeks before he was sacked by Stoke. With the Potters still languishing in the bottom three — along with Southampton, who lost 3-0 to West Ham in Hughes’ first Premier League game in charge — the Welshman could play a part in a double drop this season despite his assertion.
Arsenal and Chelsea are next up for the Saints, who have now gone three top-flight matches without a goal. It will be a huge test for Hughes and his players in a survival battle that is set to go right down to the wire.
Matthew Stanger covers European football for ESPN and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger