Manchester City's season-defining run of games starts this Tuesday 5th April against Atletico Madrid in the 1st leg of the Champions League quarter-finals – live on BT Sport 1, with kick-off at 8 pm (BST).
Rotation across this four-game run of Atletico and Liverpool will be key but Pep Guardiola's hand is forced ahead of the first leg with Ruben Dias' hamstring injury keeping him out. Cole Palmer is still absent, too, and Kyle Walker serves the final match of his three-game ban after his red card against RB Leipzig in December.
With this in mind, a return to right-back for Joao Cancelo seems likely, with John Stones returning too, after a precautionary stint on the bench at the weekend. Despite Nathan Ake's goal-line clearance heroics against Burnley, I'd still expect Aymeric Laporte and Oleksandr Zinchenko to be taking up positions on the left-hand side of the defence.
Ahead of them, Kevin De Bruyne, after a well-deserved rest over the international break should pair up alongside Bernardo Silva with ex-Atleti man Rodri screening the defence. Riyad Mahrez should also return to the right-wing, after all, it was his efforts in the later knockout rounds last season that got City through to last year's final. Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden should complete the triumvirate up front for the Blues.
However, with Cancelo, De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus all set to miss the next match with a booking, City must be careful in order to enhance their chances of progression.
Ederson, Cancelo, Stones, Laporte, Zinchenko, Bernardo, Rodri, De Bruyne, Sterling, Foden, Mahrez
League position: 1st
Top scorer: Mahrez (22)
Previous result: W 0-2 Burnley (A)
Despite a stumble against Crystal Palace where City did everything right but score, Guardiola's men are in good form. At the weekend, Burnley faltered whilst City dominated, with Raheem Sterling in destructive form at right-wing, assisting both goals in the 2-0 win. Before that, despite an uncharacteristic error, City put on a second-half show, punishing Southampton to reach the FA Cup semi-finals for the fourth consecutive year.
City's exceptional performance in the Manchester derby always deserves a mention when talking form and it shows when the stakes are at their highest, City have always stood up to the challenge this season; the double over their neighbours, the double over last season's foe in Chelsea, a resilient late win against Arsenal. Yes, they have had drops at times which has let Liverpool close the gap to a solitary point, but the City ship has sailed on. Progress in the Champions League is what the fans want, and after coming so close last season, surely kicking off this make or break run of four games with a statement win would be ideal? Riyad Mahrez has so often been the star this season and is rightfully City's top scorer since taking on penalty duties, but the rotating cast of Sterling, Foden, Bernardo, and De Bruyne have all chipped in with goal involvements, too. And whilst the goals and assists may not be flowing for Jack Grealish yet, he's put in solid performance after solid performance, learning the system without allowing his individual brilliance to fade either. This is the first-ever competitive meeting between City and Atletico; the transfer market is often where these two meet, with Rodri being the most recent transaction and Sergio Aguero written into folklore at both clubs. Ex-City man Stefan Savic has been a key player for Diego Simeone at Los Colcheneros since joining in 2015.
Speaking before the game in the pre-match press conference, Guardiola was asked about his tendency to "overthink" in the big European games, after strange formations and tactics have caught fans and pundits out previously, in response he joked:
"Always I overthink. I overthink a lot. Absolutely. That’s why I’ve had good results. I love to overthink and create stupid tactics. Tonight I take inspiration and there will be incredible tactics tomorrow. We’ll play with 12..."
A happy, sarcastic and relaxed Guardiola should fill any City fan with confidence, even if Atletico Madrid are one of the most difficult teams to break down.
League position: 3rd
Top scorer: Suarez (13)
Previous result: W 4-1 Alaves (H)
The Spanish champions could not be in better form coming into this tie. Simeone's men are on an 8 game unbeaten streak, which includes both legs of their round of 16 tie against Manchester United as well as two league games where they had to play out the closing minutes with 10 men. Former City transfer target Joao Felix is in riotous form, with 7 goals and 2 assists in that 8 game run. Luis Suarez and Angel Correa with 11 goals each for Atleti in La Liga this season.
An early-season slump may have derailed hopes of defending their crown, but in a group where they fought off AC Milan and Porto to finish 2nd behind Liverpool, then despatching United with relative ease in the last round, they aren't going to lie down without a fight. After all, they knocked out Liverpool in the first knockout round in 19/20 too, with an incredibly late, fiery comeback at Anfield. We're all aware of the Atletico playbook too; incredibly well organised and drilled in a low block defence, rapid counter-attacks with an array of quality, strong midfielders who've no issue getting up close with the opposition. It's an incredibly tough opponent for anyone, even if City are well used to low block defences with pace on the counter.
However, with star centre back Jose Gimenez out through injury and Yannick Carrasco suspended, Atleti will still have their work cut out to defend against the constant waves of City attacks and their own star power. However, much like City, Atleti must be careful with Felix, Herrera, Kondogbia, Llorente, Reinildo and Suarez all one booking away from suspension. If heads are lost at the Etihad, it'll be an uphill battle in a week's time for the men from Madrid.
Oblak; Llorente, Savić, Felipe, Reinildo, Lodi; Koke, Kondogbia, Lemar; Griezmann, João Felix
Head to Head
Manchester City and Atletico Madrid have never met in a competitive fixture and no record of a friendly game between the two clubs exists either.
Referee: Istvan Kovacs
Assistants: Vasile Florin Marinescu & Ovidiu Artene
Fourth Official: Marco Di Bello
VAR: Paolo Valeri
Assistant VAR: Massimiliano Irrati
Written by: @olicoulsxn
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