Premier League Preview: Are Manchester City in Danger of Missing out on 4th?

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistMay 6, 2016

Sergio Aguero trudges off the field having now gone 525 minutes without a shot on target in the Champions League.
Sergio Aguero trudges off the field having now gone 525 minutes without a shot on target in the Champions League.Associated Press

The party is in Leicester. The wake is in Manchester.

On paper, it wasn’t so bad. Valiant almost. Over 180 minutes, just a solitary goal was the difference between Manchester City and Real Madrid.

On grass, it wasn’t so good. Deferential almost. Over 180 minutes, the gulf between Manchester City and Real Madrid was such that Real manager Zinedine Zidane could have picked himself in goal and not muddied his suit.

There will be more angst inside the Etihad Stadium on Sunday for the visit of Arsenal than at a Woody Allen convention. The away supporters are reportedly planning another protest in the 12th minute, which will see homemade placards held aloft to spell out in a mosaic: "They’re depressed too, but we’ve been depressed longer." There won't be an empty psychiatrist's couch seat in the stadium.

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There is no shame in losing to the most successful club in UEFA Champions League history, even less so when it is at a stage in the competition that represents previously uncharted waters. Madrid have played in 21 European Cup semi-finals to City's one. Real's five successive European wins at the Santiago Bernabeu at an 18-0 aggregate scoreline was hardly cause for City optimism, either. It was no surprise Madrid finished the night with a 15th win at home from their last 16 games.

Yet to watch Manchester City, for want of a better word, amble around the Bernabeu with all the hunger of fulfilling a pre-season commercial commitment with a little jet leg and not much more enthusiasm meant it was hard to conclude anything other than Wednesday night’s no-show in Madrid could prove to be seismic. A changing of the guard may not be the sole reserve of the City dugout over the summer.

Despite being the first Manchester City side to reach a Champions League semi-final in the club’s history, it looked to be one neither on the up nor in transition but rather in decline.

City better hope it's Pep (Guardiola) by name, pep by nature, because by God they needed a little of it in the Spanish capital. The sight of Vincent Kompany prone on the turf after 10 minutes was sad, but it was so predictable it’s a wonder Eliaquim Mangala bothered taking his seat on the bench.

That Pepe and Sergio Ramos, neither a choirboy, were both bent over offering conciliatory words to a player who has suffered 33 separate injuries since joining City in 2008, according to Aaron Flanagan of the Mirror, said much about the high regard he is held in even the loftiest of surrounds.

The Belgian is the first player to be substituted twice before the 10th minute because of injury in Champions League history. He’s also the only player to have a Bupa wing named after him.

The manner in which City’s players passed around his captain’s armband as he left the field, as if they’d been handed a live grenade, spoke volumes. A side gilded in gold needs a little more steel.

While Guardiola is unlikely to indulge Kompany’s propensity to pick up injuries as much as his predecessors, the Belgian’s immaculate leadership qualities and undoubted influence at the club should buy him both good grace and a little time to prove his detractors wrong. When the alternatives are Mangala (£42 million), Nicolas Otamendi (£32 million) and Martin Demichelis, it's easy to see why Kompany is risked so often when only half-fit.

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Better to hobble off than be hauled off. We need to talk about Yaya (Toure) more than we do Kevin (De Bruyne), even if the former’s continued lethargic presence restricts the latter’s influence to a left-sided role, when his talent both craves and deserves centre stage.

When City went down to the third tier of English football in 1998, a familiar refrain heard from the stands was: "We are not, we're not really here; we are not, we're not really here; just like the fans of the invisible man, we're not really here." In the intervening 18 years, City have gone from playing Macclesfield to Madrid. The same chant still worked on Wednesday, though.

Toure’s stats for the hour he moseyed around the pitch, looking like a man who had inadvertently wandered on to the grass while killing time before picking his car up from a service, were Kafkaesque: zero goals, zero assists, zero chances created, zero attempts, zero tackles, zero clearances, zero touches in the opposition penalty area, zero successful deliveries into the penalty area and zero successful solo runs into the penalty area.

Times likely to be sold by Guardiola in his career: two. The Man Who Disappeared, indeed. Pep will make sure of that.

You cannot but admire a player who, if they spotted a mate in the crowd, would go over for a chat in the middle of the game, but there is more chance of "Jesus, Navas" starting for City next season than Toure. It’s fair to say the Ivorian’s heat map on the night was lukewarm. He looked like he was refereeing at one point, jogging to keep up with play while being careful never to interfere with it once he got there. 

Even Sergio Aguero seems afflicted. In all competitions, he has scored 28 goals this season, but it’s 525 minutes since he last recorded a shot on target in the Champions League. He didn’t manage a single touch in Madrid’s box on Wednesday. Isolated and without looking fully fit on the night, Aguero is clearly a symptom rather than the cause. Yet it’s no less of a worry.

With Toure turning 33 on May 13 (note to agent: don’t go to public this time if a cake isn’t forthcoming), David Silva coming off his worst season at the club and Kompany perennially crocked, the spine of City’s side is looking decidedly fragile.

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Manuel Pellegrini will not then, after all, embarrass the club’s senior management by leaving Manchester in May with his luggage in one hand and the European Cup in the other. Managers like to talk of evolution when taking the reins at a new club; Guardiola might secretly be thinking revolution. There's just as much chance he'll carry out surgery on his new squad with an axe as there is a scalpel over the summer. 

Throughout the two legs, City looked a side that could ill-afford to overlook his availability, even in a week when the outgoing Bayern Munich boss showed he too is a mere mortal. It is indicative of the time we live in that Guardiola is facing accusations of being a fraud, having been been knocked out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage in each of the last three seasons. He is, of course, nothing of the sort. Nothing, it seems, is as black and white as a newspaper headline. 

Manchester City vs. Arsenal, Sunday at 4 p.m. BST

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Guardiola’s miserable week has the potential to be exacerbated to an eye-watering level by Sunday’s game at the Etihad. After a much-changed City side capitulated 4-2 at Southampton last time out in the Premier League, fourth spot and the final Champions League place is suddenly under threat. Four points separate City from Manchester United in fifth, with Louis van Gaal’s side having a game in hand on their neighbours. 

If City fail to win on Sunday, United would be guaranteed fourth should they take maximum spoils from their three remaining matches (Norwich away, West Ham United away and Bournemouth home). Sixth-placed West Ham United are a point behind United, unbeaten in their last 10 Premier League matches, and they could still catch both Manchester clubs.

With the miracle of Leicester City rightly riding roughshod over all and sundry, the prospect of City missing out on the Champions League has barely merited a mention. 

Notwithstanding the disappointment of losing in midweek, City’s record against the Premier League’s top six this season is abysmal. They have failed to win any of nine matches, with six defeats and three draws accruing a paltry three points from a possible 27. Extend it out to matches against the top eight, the tally reads six points from a possible 39.

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A subdued Joe Hart insists @MCFC could have easily booked their place in the #UCLfinal tonight. #RealvCity https://t.co/NKmjEsG1eh

City have lost more Premier League matches against Arsenal than any other side. If that record, 23 defeats and counting, isn’t improved on Sunday, Pellegrini may have to slip out of the back door without saying his goodbyes. The baton is in real danger of being handed over to Guardiola dripping in grease. If Pellegrini and his players drop it on Sunday, Thursday nights could be busy for City next season.

The more optimistic City supporters will rightly point out a victory would see them supplant Arsenal in third and all but book a top-four finish.

It’s a weird one with City. They’re the exact opposite of Leicester. The whole is worth less than the sum of the parts. There’s nothing remarkable about that in itself, plenty of sides underperform, but sometimes with City, it genuinely looks like the players aren’t that bothered. That’s not to cast aspersions—you don’t win a Premier League title and two League Cups as they have done in Pellegrini’s three seasons at the club without being bothered. It's just hard to imagine tears in defeat. 

Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur’s Battle of the Bridge on Monday night starred more delinquents than the cast of Grease. Diego Costa and Mousa Dembele were ready to settle it over a drag race before the former became the unlikeliest victim of eye-gouging in the history of eye-gouging and had to pull out.

City aren’t quite the Pink Ladies in comparison, but it’s rare you see any of them genuinely angry. To not be up for a Champions League semi-final, in a game you are very much in at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid, is nothing less than bizarre. 

OptaJoe @OptaJoe

9 - Tottenham are the first team in Premier League history to have nine players booked in one game. Naughty.

Joe Hart acts and speaks as though he’s just stepped from the page of an Alan Sillitoe novel, but at times he seems an island in bleeding blue. In terms of commitment to the cause, he’s head and shoulders above some of his team-mates.

It's hard not to think apathy starts with the manager.

Pellegrini said he had no regrets about the tie, seemingly content with his side's failure to register a solitary shot on target over the two legs. "I think we worked very well," he said, per the Guardian.

"But I don’t think we can be bothered by criticism. We turned up to win the game like we do every game but that is gone now."

It's safe to say the Chilean doesn't use JFK's former speechwriters. Criticism isn't the only thing City looked like they couldn't be bothered with. If they don't snap out of this state of reverie sharpish, Guardiola may experience life outside of the Champions League for the first time in his managerial career. 

With Arsenal fans long since booked into therapy, Sunday's game has all the hallmarks of an existential cracker.

Leicester City vs. Everton, Saturday at 5.30 p.m. BST: A City Braces Itself for the Mother of All Parties

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The taste of success—one free bag of ‘Salt & Victory’ for every #LCFC fan at the King Power on Saturday. [via @LCFC] https://t.co/kfiUIaCeGY

Norwich City vs. Manchester United, Saturday at 12.45 p.m. BST

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Ronaldo: I see some of myself in Marcus Rashford 🙌 https://t.co/jFNA7VqBOI

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5 - No side has kept fewer clean sheets than Norwich in the Premier League this season (5, level with Villa). Porous.

West Ham United vs. Swansea City, Saturday at 3 p.m. BST

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#WHUFC Awards night: Dimitri Payet Players’ Player 🏆 Goal of the Season 🏆 Signing of the Season 🏆 [📷@whufc_official] https://t.co/XkuSeXi4Ta

Sunderland vs. Chelsea, Saturday at 3 p.m. BST

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Aston Villa vs. Newcastle United, Saturday at 3 p.m. BST

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Tottenham Hotspur vs. Southampton, Sunday at 1.30 p.m. BST

Sky Sports MNF @SkySportsMNF

WATCH: Mauricio Pochettino is very "proud" of his Tottenham team. Full video: https://t.co/9vnC0bx8GP https://t.co/q5su2fIxJg

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4 - Southampton have scored four goals in successive Premier League games for the first time. Blitz.

Liverpool vs. Watford, Sunday at 4 p.m. BST

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Firmino running the show at Anfield 🔥 https://t.co/zC5YchqH6g

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