Manchester City and Aston Villa square off on Wednesday evening at the Etihad Stadium as City look to put one hand back on the Premier League trophy. Villa, on the other hand, will be looking to consolidate a solid league finish after clinching safety last weekend.
Liverpool's stunning capitulation at Selhurst Park saw them slip up once again, with a 3-3 draw costing the Reds two crucial points. Now a win for City in this midweek fixture will vault them two points above the current leaders heading into next Sunday.
Villa ran out as shocking 3-2 winners over City in September as part of the Blues' slow start away from home. This reverse matchup is the last of City's all-important games in hand, originally scheduled for March 8. However, the FA Cup quarterfinals and City's participation therein forced a reschedule, as noted by Villa's site.
Now that the match is finally ready to be played, how will it pan out? Read on as we discuss some key talking points.
City's win last weekend over Everton saw early exits for both Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure, but both players have stated that they are fit to go. The striker took to Twitter to update City fans:
Thank you for your concern. I left just as a precaution. Fortunately I'm fine, happy for the goal, the win and keeping our dream alive.— Sergio Aguero (@aguerosergiokun) May 3, 2014
Meanwhile, Toure credited his substitution to his continued recovery from the knock he picked up in the Liverpool loss. He told City's official site:
It was very important I came off. It has been difficult for me in a short space of time to recover from the injury I picked up at Liverpool and prepare physically.
If you are not fully prepared it is very tough, because you have to be at 100 per cent for these games and coming back is always difficult, especially at the end of the season, but I feel good.
The Everton clash also saw David Silva return from his series of injury layoffs to play a bit-part role, a welcome sign for the blue side of Manchester. City's often-full injury list dwindled Sunday to just Jesus Navas, as noted before the match by manager Manuel Pellegrini.
Villa are, of course, still rocked by the long-term loss of star striker Christian Benteke. They also suffered a bit of a scare in their weekend win over Hull after having to withdraw another key figure early on:
The Villans will surely miss Agbonlahor's pace down the flank if he is in fact unable to participate, which we'll get to shortly. Andreas Weimann and Grant Holt are the main men now in charge of leading the attack.
Pellegrini has brought forth a twist in the usual plot over the last couple of weeks, introducing Javi Garcia in place of Fernandinho in the starting XI. The Spaniard hasn't seen a lot of starts in his City career, but as B/R's Rob Pollard noted, he's proven a steady figure in midfield.
As such, it would not be surprising to see the Chilean stick with Garcia against Paul Lambert's side. Garcia's inclusion gives Toure the freedom to careen back and forth at will, as he is wont to do.
With Silva back to full fitness as well, expect him to return to the starting fold as City seek to go all out for three points. James Milner drops to the bench to make room for the mesmeric playmaker.
Elsewhere, if El Kun is to be taken by his word—which we have no reason not to do—he should once again start up top alongside Edin Dzeko. The pair that scored the stoppage-time goals on May 13, 2012 could see their side all but wrap up the title once again on Wednesday.
City's predicted XI: Hart; Zabaleta, Demichelis, Kompany, Clichy; Garcia, Toure; Silva, Aguero, Nasri; Dzeko
On the other side, Villa's lineup should also be similar to their last XI, which saw them run out 3-1 victors over Hull. We're in agreement here with B/R's Sam Tighe, who had a crack at predicting the setup:
@agruber6 Guzan; Lowton, Clark, Baker, Vlaar, Bertrand; Delph, Westwood, Abrighton(10); Weimann, Holt. Gabby hurt.— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) May 5, 2014
The only change from Lambert's side against Hull is Holt replacing the injured Agbonlahor. Weimann bagged a brace in that Hull win, so expect much of the attacking impetus to come from the Austrian here once again.
If he sees enough of the ball to do anything with it, that is.
Further back, Villa fans will be expecting Fabian Delph to help break up play to start getting service to the attackers. Recently named the club's Player of the Year by the fans, the 24-year-old has enjoyed a strong season in the middle for his club.
Key matchup: Villa's five at the back vs. City's fab five attackers
Lambert has a massive task on his hands if he is hoping to limit City's scoring chances. Three central defenders flanked by Matthew Lowton and Ryan Bertrand face a stern test in the aforementioned "fab five": Dzeko, Aguero, Silva, Nasri and Toure.
Because we all know Toure is basically an extra attacker most of the time.
This group of players is nigh on unstoppable on their day. The movement of Aguero torments the defenders as Dzeko lies in wait to plunder the gaps left. Silva and Nasri jink in and out to play balls short and long, interchanging here and there. And Toure just charges through the middle, leaving anyone who tries to intervene in his wake.
Ron Vlaar, Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark will have to stay disciplined and in close communication to make sure that nothing gets past to them. Dzeko's brace against Everton will have him brimming with confidence to take them on time and again, hoping to add to his growing tally.
Given that City will boss the ball, Silva and Nasri are sure to be busy playing testing balls towards the Bosnian. That defensive trio will have to be on their toes to continually intercept, while Bertrand and Lowton must be able to track the two inside and out, knowing when to stay and when to leave.
City will have their chances. It comes down to the five at the back—plus Brad Guzan between the sticks—to make sure those chances don't come to anything.
Football isn't played on paper. Just ask Crystal Palace, who've beaten three of the current top five in recent weeks. Or ask Villa themselves, who've already beaten City once while also toppling Chelsea and Arsenal along the way.
But there's no denying that City are the better team. Just three weeks ago, this writer all but guaranteed a City win in this fixture. And there's no going back on that call now.
Not after the scenes at Goodison Park on Sunday.
Not after the scenes at Selhurst Park Monday evening.
Not with the title on the line.
City 4-0 Villa
Any predictions of your own? Leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter.