Manchester City's Premier League opener with Newcastle United looks fairly simple when compared to the following week's showdown with Liverpool at the Etihad. The Magpies finished 10th in the league last season despite posting a losing record.
City beat Newcastle twice in league play last season and also eliminated manager Alan Pardew's side from the Capital One Cup. City are heavy favorites, per Oddsshark.com, to leave St James' Park with three points.
Despite all of that, precisely how City manager Manuel Pellegrini is going to set his XI up is somewhere between "unclear" and "a total dice roll."
The questions begin with the formation Pellegrini will select. When all of his best players are healthy, Pellegrini prefers a 4-4-2 with Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero upfront.
Aguero's availability for this match, however, is in serious question. "Pellegrini will not rush Sergio Aguero back into action this season in the hope the striker can finally overcome his injury nightmares," as reported by Rob Dawson recently for the Manchester Evening News.
In many of the matches where Aguero was unavailable last season, Pellegrini switched to a 4-5-1 formation with Yaya Toure nominally playing centre-midfield but in truth serving as a second striker option.
Aguero did not dress for the Community Shield match with Arsenal, which suggests at least that City are going to be cautious with him and perhaps that Aguero is still struggling with the injury woes that limited him in Argentina's World Cup run. Either way, it seems improbable that Aguero will be pushed to face Newcastle.
Assuming that to be the case, expect Pellegrini to turn again to the 4-5-1 that served him well for much of the second half of last season.
Working from the tip of the spear back to the grip, Pellegrini's decision at striker is between Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic. With all due respect to Jovetic's productive summer, Dzeko should get the start given his more extensive experience with the first unit.
In the midfield, the players nearly guaranteed to start are Toure, David Silva and Fernandinho. If in fact it is a 4-5-1 that Pellegrini deploys, Jesus Navas and Samir Nasri are both apt to start on the wings.
Pellegrini has no real reason to force new men Fernando and Bruno Zuculini into the XI, and James Milner has, for whatever reason, never gained much favor with the manager.
At the back, Vincent Kompany and Martin Demichelis are the presumptive centre-back pairing. Eliaquim Mangala is probably going to supplant Demichelis eventually but right now Mangala's fitness is in question, and besides, a road encounter with Newcastle is no place to break in a new defensive tandem.
Pablo Zabaleta has the starting right-back position until someone (Bacary Sagna?) takes it away. Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy project to spend this season battling for the left-back starting spot as they did for much of last season. Kolarov's ability to shift to the midfield if the need arises makes him arguably more valuable.
As for the goalkeeper spot, Pellegrini has been intentionally coy about who his No. 1 is. "Joe finished last season playing well. We will see next Sunday who starts at Newcastle," Pellegrini said recently, per Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail.
Pellegrini is free to motivate Hart however he pleases, but it would be foolish to give Caballero this start. Despite Hart's struggles at the beginning of last season, he was good enough to backstop City to the Premier League crown for the second time in three seasons. The job is rightfully Hart's to lose.
Picture this XI taking the pitch against Newcastle: Hart; Kolarov, Kompany, Demichelis, Zabaleta; Nasri, Fernandinho, Toure, Silva, Navas; Dzeko. Shouldn't that group have enough familiarity with each other to beat Newcastle?
Now, as ever, is a good time for Pellegrini to keep it simple and not overthink his selection decisions. Getting cute or experimental on the road in the Premier League is hazardous.
In retrospect, then, while Pellegrini has many "difficult" lineup decisions to make in advance of this match, the safe and easy choices are probably the best choices for City.