Manchester City reached the final of last season's FA Cup before getting stunned by Wigan Athletic. They start their run toward another championship game appearance with a third-round clash against the Blackburn Rovers of the second-tier Football League Championship.
City are one of 44 clubs entering the competition for the current round. Given the busy stretch of games surrounding the holiday season for teams at every level, one of the biggest factors in play is how strong of a squad each side decides to field.
If the Sky Blues opt for significant changes to the lineup, Blackburn can't be counted out. After a slow start to the season, the Rovers have been playing much better as of late with just one loss in their last six match. That includes a midweek road win over Leeds.
Let's check out all of the important information for the FA Cup matchup, followed by a look at the top storyline and a match prediction.
What's your prediction for the FA Cup match?
Where: Ewood Park in Blackburn, England
When: Saturday, Jan. 4 at 7:45 a.m. ET (12:45 p.m. GMT)
Watch: Fox Sports 1 and BT Sport 1
Live Stream: Fox Soccer 2Go
Match Odds (via Bovada)
Manchester City: -450
Blackburn Rovers: +800
Top Storyline: Can Manchester City continue their recent run of terrific form?
City have been nearly unstoppable since a surprising loss to Sunderland in early November. They have played 12 matches across all competitions since the defeat and have racked up 11 victories, including wins over Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Liverpool, and one draw.
From a Premier League perspective, the remarkable run of form has allowed them to push toward the top of the table. And even though they currently sit in second place behind Arsenal, Paul Carr notes that ESPN's SPI rates them as heavy favorites to claim the title:
SPI's Premier League title odds have Manchester City as a heavy favorite: pic.twitter.com/z1qbMgzJPY— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) January 2, 2014
While City should feel good about their chances at capturing at least one trophy this season, they can't afford to overlook Blackburn. It would be easy to do after a tiring stretch of fixtures, several of which were against elite competition.
All it takes is one lackluster performance and one of those chances at a title will be gone. Blackburn obviously can't match City's talent or form, but they have been playing better lately and are playing at home. If the Sky Blues don't bring the same intensity to the match, the Rovers can take advantage.
That's why manager Manuel Pellegrini continues to push his players. Richard Jolly of ESPN passed along comments from the City boss, who keeps reinforcing the idea of learning and improving to his players despite the hot streak:
We will continue learning. It's very important for all the players to always be improving. It must be better, the second half, than the first. But then the first half was already very good. We played nine games in December: we won eight and drew just one. In the Premier League from the last seven we won six. It is normal to improve though.
If City play up to the standard they have set over the past six weeks, they will win the match. But if there are major changes to the lineup, chemistry issues and just general lackluster play after a tough span of matches, Blackburn have a chance.
Ultimately, Pellegrini will probably try to strike a nice balance between resting some key players without completely overhauling the squad. It means players like Edin Dzeko and David Silva will likely carry a little extra burden to lead the way.
The Sky Blues are bound for a more workmanlike performance as opposed to some of the highlight-reel displays from recent weeks. That should still be enough to advance, though. Look for one goal in each half as City continue to roll.
Manchester City 2, Blackburn Rovers 0