Just when Manchester City appeared almost invincible, another tough game at Anfield – this time resulting in a 3-0 defeat – has brought them crashing back down to earth.
And if that wasn’t a sobering enough experience, the Premier League’s champions in waiting must now prepare for one of the most eagerly anticipated Manchester derbies in generations, one that will see them clinch the English crown with a win over historic rivals Manchester United.
Amid what has undoubtedly been the least certain few days in City’s otherwise immaculate 2017/18 season, Pep Guardiola will have found himself trying to find the right answers to some crucial questions. Here are four of the most important…
Guardiola has never been one for prioritising games, especially when they’re as important as a Manchester derby and a Champions League quarter-final. He’ll expect and feel this City side is good enough to achieve the right results and produce strong performances in both. Yet, the fact of the matter is that City don’t need to win Saturday’s game – this season’s title is a mere formality, and they’ll have six more chances to get themselves over the line.
In contrast, City only have one opportunity to still make the semi-finals of this season’s Champions League, and it will require a huge performance over Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium to reverse the three-goal deficit. So, should Guardiola spare his resources for Tuesday’s second leg, or risk it all for a historic win over United?
The last two games have seen surprising tactical experimentation from a team that has been so relentless when using 4-3-3 on the most-part this season. City used a 3-5-2 setup to outmanoeuvre Everton at Goodison Park, resulting in a 3-1 win, while the formation used at Anfield was almost a mix between 3-4-3 and 4-5-1 with Aymeric Laporte part full-back and part centre-half.
That’s perhaps due to Sergio Aguero’s absence – Gabriel Jesus needs far more support in close proximity – and the quality Liverpool boast in attack. But in the safe surroundings of the Etihad Stadium and after such a huge loss, surely it’s time for City to return to the system they know best. Then again, Guardiola might have a trick or two under his sleeve.
For all the talk of Jesus replacing Aguero earlier in the season, the Brazilian’s performance in the 3-0 defeat to Liverpool showed just how far away he still is from replicating the levels of the Argentine assassin. Aguero was forced to sit out the midweek clash with injury and it remains to be seen whether he’ll be available for the Manchester derby.
But even if he is, Guardiola must decide whether the risk of starting a key forward with notorious injury problems is really worth it, bearing in mind City don’t need to win this game and face Liverpool on Tuesday. It could well be the difference between victory and defeat for City – Aguero often only needs one chance to score in this calibre of game – but there are more battles ahead.
City failed to handle the incredible speed of Liverpool’s attack in midweek but Manchester United pose a different kind of threat through Romelu Lukaku. The Belgium international is quick off the mark as well, but also boasts power and dominance in the air.
More pertinently, he’s enjoying something of a purple patch at the moment – scoring four in United’s last six league games and netting or assisting in his last seven outings across all competitions, including a goal for Belgium. City, meanwhile, have kept only one clean sheet in their last four, using all four of their centre-back options in that time, so it’s vital Guardiola chooses the right personnel to contain the United front-man.
Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi seem the obvious options, but perhaps City need a covering defender to partner one of those two.