City wary of Saints despite firming grip on top-four spot

LONDON • Manchester City's Champions League qualification chances look a little more solid after a productive week, but there will still be little margin for error when they travel to Southampton today.

Pep Guardiola's side enjoyed their first win in five Premier League matches last weekend, a straightforward 3-1 home victory over struggling Hull, making City a little more secure in fourth place.

With Arsenal, one of City's rivals for a top-four finish, losing 0-3 at Crystal Palace on Monday and Manchester United looking increasingly to the Europa League for comfort, the picture is looking brighter for Guardiola as a testing first season in England draws to a close.

Not that the Spaniard is in a mood for complacency. For one thing, there is just a possibility, however slim, that fourth place will only bring a spot in the Europa League.

That is because Uefa rules do not allow more than five teams from one national association to compete in the Champions League at the same time.

Should Leicester - the Premier League's remaining team in the Champions League - win that competition in June, in addition to United securing the Europa League and both sides finish outside the top four, then it is the fourth-placed team who must make way for the two sides next season.

Of far more immediate concern to Guardiola than an English double in Europe, however, is the continuing vulnerability of City's defence.

They faced only one shot on target against Hull last weekend, and yet conceded a sloppy goal from it.

Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, recalled for his first league game since Jan 21, was widely blamed for that goal, but Guardiola was quick to make clear afterwards that he felt his team were responsible.

Whether it is Bravo or Willy Caballero who is selected in goal to face ninth-placed Southampton, they are set to see experienced club captain Vincent Kompany back at the heart of City's defence.

The Belgium centre-back, who has suffered a series of injury setbacks over the past three years, was rested against Hull to allow a minor leg problem to clear up.

Said Guardiola: "Southampton have a good manager and exceptional players in all positions... It's a really good test for us."

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SOUTHAMPTON V MAN CITY
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2017, with the headline 'City wary of Saints despite firming grip on top-four spot'. Print Edition | Subscribe