The Big Match

Football: City play Spurs, now as underdogs

Manchester City's David Silva celebrates scoring their third goal with Yaya Toure and teammates, on Jan 6, 2017.
Manchester City's David Silva celebrates scoring their third goal with Yaya Toure and teammates, on Jan 6, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

Roles switched since first fixture, as Tottenham look more like title contenders than their hosts

Amid the gloom of Goodison Park, after a 4-0 thrashing by Everton that was his heaviest league loss and, as he admitted, ended Manchester City's title challenge, Pep Guardiola plucked one positive.

Only one team, he argued, had outplayed City this season.

The problem is that they are Tottenham, that Spurs are at the peak of their form and that they visit the Etihad Stadium today.

They do so with a role reversal exerting a dramatic effect. Tottenham are the title challengers, City the side in the Europa League places. Mauricio Pochettino has prospered playing with a back three, a tactic Guardiola employed unsuccessfully earlier in the season.

Tottenham were the first team to beat Guardiola's City side. They now have three consecutive victories against the blue half of Manchester. Before then, however, City had won four in a row, scoring 16 times. This used to be a one-sided rivalry they relished.

Not now.

City have struggled to handle the pace and intensity of the faster teams. In the past 16 months, they have lost all six league meetings with Pochettino's and Jurgen Klopp's sides. Guardiola wants to play a similar pressing game but may start six thirty-somethings, while Spurs' outfield players are all in their twenties.

Pochettino's 3-4-2-1 system has worked so well he has no need to tinker. The only change should be enforced, with centre-back Jan Vertonghen out with an ankle injury. But as Ben Davies played on the left of a back three as Wales reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016, it could be a seamless switch.

Guardiola has bigger decisions to make. Does he persist with the midfield diamond that delivered a 5-0 rout of West Ham, but also that 4-0 embarrassment at Everton?

That could allow Tottenham's excellent in-form wing-backs Kyle Walker and Danny Rose to out-flank City.

Does he adopt a more direct approach? Because his defenders can be caught on the ball, especially by opponents as sharp as Spurs.

Can he find a way of making City less susceptible to the counter-attack? It has been a recurring theme, illustrated when Everton scored four times despite having just 29 per cent of possession.

It would help if Vincent Kompany made a belated comeback and if Claudio Bravo, who saved Erik Lamela's penalty in September but has barely stopped anything since, can provide some resistance.

At least the precociously gifted Brazilian attacker Gabriel Jesus is available to make his debut. It might make this an auspicious occasion, if not, certainly a boost to City's morale.

But while Guardiola is looking for a system as well as his best XI, Tottenham's last defeat came in Manchester, City's most significant recent win against a North London team.

A repeat could leave Spurs 10 points behind Chelsea tomorrow and thus, by Guardiola's logic, out of the title race too.

MANCHESTER CITY V TOTTENHAM

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2017, with the headline 'City play Spurs, now as underdogs'. Print Edition | Subscribe