If it feels like it has been a while since Manchester City played a match that really mattered, that is because it has been some time since City truly had something at stake.
City last played a Premier League match on New Year's Day at Swansea City. Their two intervening matches leading up to their looming EPL showdown with Newcastle United at St James' Park were glorified exhibitions that were notable for a couple of things that had little to do with their results.
City manager Manuel Pellegrini took the concept of "squad rotation" and expanded it to include players like Dedryck Boyata, with predictable results.
In managing only to draw Blackburn at Ewood Park in the third round of the FA Cup (forcing a replay), City at least avoided a midweek trip to Abu Dhabi to play a friendly.
The Sky Blues did learn their lesson, apparently, as their next domestic cup match saw them hang six on West Ham.
With an FA Cup third round replay and a road leg of a Capital One Cup semifinal still to play, neither Blackburn nor West Ham are fully in the rear view for the Citizens. For now, though, the emphasis for Pellegrini and his players is back on the Premier League title chase.
City have beaten Newcastle twice already this season, but neither of those results fairly represents how difficult this match will be for City. Newcastle were the unlucky Premier League test case on facing Pellegrini's system in the season opener for both clubs at the Etihad in August.
Little did anyone know then that Newcastle's 4-0 defeat at Manchester City would become sort of an average score line in that stadium rather than an aberrant beating.
City's Capital One Cup win over Newcastle at St James' Park took more than 120 minutes of playing time to secure, and City were probably fortunate to extend that match to extra time in the first place. It may have been Costel Pantilimon's finest performance as keeper for City this season.
City resume Premier League play one point back of table-topping Arsenal and one point ahead of surging Chelsea. Both clubs are still formidable competitors for the title, though Arsenal may struggle to account for Theo Walcott's recent season-ending knee injury.
But there is little use for Pellegrini or the Citizens to do any scoreboard watching at this stage of the season. City's away form, so unsteady for much of 2013, has improved recently, and that has to be the primary consideration as the Sky Blues take on the Magpies.
As noted above, Pellegrini gave his stars as much rest as he reasonably could after the Swansea City win. He cannot risk anything but his best XI here. Newcastle are presently ensconced in eighth position in the Premier League table, a position they would retain even with a loss to City.
My predicted XI for City against Newcastle therefore looks like this: Joe Hart; Aleksandar Kolarov, Matija Nastasic, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta; Samir Nasri, David Silva, Yaya Toure, Fernandinho; Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negredo.
At the time of this writing, Yaya Toure's ankle injury sustained against West Ham has not ruled him out. If he cannot play, look for Javi Garcia to take his place.
City just need to hold out for a little while longer until Sergio Aguero is healthy again.
At least that is the hope.
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