Manchester City travel to Seville tonight to take on a side they beat with a last minute goal in Manchester two weeks ago. The Spaniards will be out for revenge, but not just because of defeat – they’ll be out for victory to keep themselves well and truly in with a shot at qualifying for the knockout rounds of the Champions League.
They aren’t just any old team, though, Sevilla. They’re the reigning Europa League champions, a title they defended last year after winning it the season before, too. So for Manchester City, whose last European trophy came in 1970 when they beat Gornik Zabrze in the Cup Winners Cup, they really are the European novices up against past masters tonight.
Even with their surely superior squad, City will be wary of their opponents, and that kind of caution is what explains Manuel Pellegrini’s decision to set up playing a 4-4-2 against the Spanish side at the Etihad Stadium two weeks ago.
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It wasn’t an attacking 4-4-2. By no means. It was a defensive set-up. Cede the middle of the park and stay compact in front of Joe Hart with two banks of four sticking to their positions until the ball is won back. It’s tough to break down that kind of solidity, and it worked for City who scored on the break right at the death.
So although Sevilla were unlucky to lose that game, you can’t argue that City’s gameplan didn’t come off. Even if it finally worked right at the very last attempt, in true Manchester City fashion.
So we can probably expect another display of defensive solidity tonight.
Any two from Vincent Kompany, Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi would provide goon-like strength in the centre of defence, with the potential to play Fernando, Fernandinho and Yaya Toure in front of them. Good luck getting through that one Yevhen Konoplyanka!
But actually, in the return leg, City defended very well, just as they did against United at Old Trafford in the derby. United are the English team who play most like a ‘European side’, whatever that means – presumably that they’re actually good at passing – and City marshalled them expertly at Old Trafford.
After that game, Pellegrini lamented that he ‘doesn’t like playing this way.’ The obvious replies being, ‘we don’t like watching you play that way,’ or ‘if only the limited nature of footballing tactics allowed you to play some other sort of way, possibly with some sort of attacking gameplan.’
But it shows Pellegrini isn’t afraid to go against the grain, the all-action, GI Joe, attacking football that won him the league in 2014 just won’t cut it in the Champions League, and City have to learn to deal with that. The Action Man approach isn’t really what’s called for when you travel to the south of Spain to face a team that has won the Europa League twice in the past two seasons.
City’s job isn’t to go out there and absolutely batter them like it seems to be most weeks in the Premier League. City’s job is to go there and do whatever it takes to make sure that Sevilla will have the chance to defend their Europa League crown come the end of the Champions League group stages in December.
Pellegrini knows this. Defeat against Barcelona two seasons running has taught him about his side, and the season before that he suffered what can only be described as heartbreak when his Malaga side conceded two injury time goals against Dortmund to crash out of the Champions League quarter finals only days after the funeral of the Chilean’s father.
It will be a meaner Manchester City this week. A hard-nosed defensive team that goes out to Seville to get a result, much like the hard-nosed defensive team that stifled Manchester United – though that’s not particularly hard just at the moment.
City are a more mature side to face this season, but in Sevilla they face an even more experienced one, and that’s what they have to be wary of.