Sunderland boss Martin O'Neill brings the Black Cats back to the Etihad on Saturday for the weekend's first match in the Premier League.
The early start (12:45 p.m. local time) is often suboptimal for athletes; for Roberto Mancini's men, coming off a 1-1 Champions League draw Wednesday night against Borussia Dortmund, the quick turnaround could prove a real issue.
Manchester City's recent form continues to trouble its fans and manager. Dortmund more or less ran rings around the Sky Blues Wednesday night; only a very generous handball in the box provided City with a penalty kick when the game appeared lost.
Prior to that, it took an Edin Dzeko blast in the 87th minute for City to take all three points at Craven Cottage last weekend against mid-table Fulham.
City could use a walkover, which makes this weekend's assignment that much more unfortunate. Sunderland has caused the Citizens no end of trouble in recent history. At the Etihad last season, City barely survived with a draw after being down 1-3 with just five minutes left in regulation time.
And no City fan will soon forget Dong-Won Ji's probably-offside winner for Sunderland at the death at the Stadium of Light on New Year's Day.
Sunderland's start to this season has been rather curious. They are unbeaten in five matches, but one win and four draws have yielded but seven points. Even considering Sunderland has played one fewer match than any other side save already-relegation-threatened Reading, a three-way tie with Swansea City and Stoke City for 11th place in the table is not what O'Neill was looking for after five played.
Little things like ceding an equalizer in extra time, as Sunderland did at West Ham, wreak havoc with the best plans.
Still, unbeaten is unbeaten, and coupled with City's worrisome defensive play shows this fixture to be a trouble spot for the home side.
After watching Joe Hart effectively keep his team in Wednesday's Champions League tilt by himself, Mancini will want to give Hart all the defensive support he can while also figuring some way to get his big-name, big-money strikers off.
So, here's a projected Starting XI: Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Clichy; Rodwell, Barry, Yaya Toure, Silva, Aguero, Tevez. This assumes that Javi Garcia cannot go after leaving Wednesday night's match with a hamstring problem.
Rodwell might not be Mancini's favorite player right now, not after his gaffe led to Dortmund's only goal, but he is fit and Garcia and James Milner are not. There is also some value to putting Rodwell right back on the pitch in a meaningful game, hoping that the promising midfielder can find his way and put the errors of this season (significant as they have been) in the past.
For Sunderland, more of the same is likely: Mignolet; Rose, Gardner, O'Shea, Bramble; Larsson, Colback, Johnson; McClean, Fletcher, Sessegnon. One must think Johnson especially would love to put the dagger in City with a goal or three after City unceremoniously jettisoned him at the transfer window, ostensibly so they could sign the underwhelming Scott Sinclair.
Sunderland will dearly miss captain Lee Cattermole's typically physical, chippy contribution in the midfield—he continues to serve a suspension following a red card received on September 25 in a Capital One Cup match at MK Dons. Then again, if Cattermole can do no better than getting thrown out 32 minutes in (as he did there) perhaps the Black Cats are better off without him for this one.
Without Cattermole to stifle Yaya Toure and Silva, service to City's strikers should be prompt and effective in this match. The ever-elusive clean sheet is too much to ask for City, as Fletcher (Sunderland's only goal-scorer in league play thus far, he has five) will have a few chances and probably will cash in on one of them. But City is due to take three from Sunderland, and so they shall.
Manchester City 2-1 Sunderland.