Football: Man City wary of hammer-blow

West Ham's boss Slaven Bilic with Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp behind him on Jan 2, when the Reds became the latest scalp of the London side this season. As such, City will take nothing for granted today.
West Ham's boss Slaven Bilic with Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp behind him on Jan 2, when the Reds became the latest scalp of the London side this season. As such, City will take nothing for granted today.PHOTO: REUTERS

They lost at home in earlier fixture but have Fernandinho and Mangala back

LONDON • Manuel Pellegrini expects another difficult test of Manchester City's ability to win a "different" Premier League title race when they face top-six challengers West Ham today.

The Hammers were unbeaten in eight league games before losing at Newcastle last week and are sixth in the table.

Slaven Bilic's side have surprised in a season which has seen the traditional heavyweights struggle to impose themselves on the title race, with Leicester currently behind leaders Arsenal only on goal difference.

Pellegrini's team brushed aside a Crystal Palace side enjoying one of their best top-flight seasons last weekend 4-0 at home.

But City, a point behind the leaders in third place, were beaten at home by the Hammers in September and manager Pellegrini knows they cannot take a result for granted at Upton Park today.

"I don't know if the word is surprised. Most of the teams in the Premier League have very good players," the City manager said.

"If you have good players and a good performance as a team, I think everyone can beat another team. The difference is very slight between one team and another.

"That gives more importance to the Premier League. We are not only talking about Crystal Palace and West Ham, but I think Leicester are the same way and Everton."

City play Everton in the second leg of their League Cup semi-final next Wednesday, trailing 1-2 from the first meeting.

They were also unable to beat the Merseysiders in the league just over a week ago when the sides drew 0-0 at the Etihad.

City are unbeaten in five league games but have just 43 points from 22 games - half the total they managed when winning the title in 2014. They are unlikely to match the 86 points they managed then or the 89 they accrued when winning the league two years earlier.

Pellegrini expects the champions to accrue a lower total this season, but he will not mind as long as City finish top.

"This is not a normal league. In the last 10 leagues, the team who won it got over 80 points - maybe that won't happen this time," he said. "So it's a different league and it's not a case of our team wasting the opportunity to win it. It's a strong league.

"If you win it, it's because you were the best team. It doesn't matter how many points."

City will be strengthened by the return of midfielder Fernandinho following injury and defender Eliaquim Mangala. Captain Vincent Kompany, midfielder Samir Nasri and striker Wilfried Bony are all still out.

West Ham's impressive run of form since the end of November - last weekend's defeat at Newcastle was their first loss in 10 games - has moved them up to sixth on 35 points and prompted talk of a top-four challenge.

Bilic's dealings in the transfer market this month could determine if they can sustain their challenge.

Sam Byram, the young right-back, has arrived from Leeds, but Bilic concedes that the defender has been bought with next season in mind.

Striker Mauro Zarate has left for Fiorentina and Nikica Jelavic could also move out soon.

Bilic admitted that he will act to bring in a forward if Jelavic leaves as well.

"We are not panicking. If that happens, and it may happen, then we are going to try and get one striker," the manager said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WEST HAM V MANCHESTER CITY

Ch102 & Ch227, tomorrow, 1.30am

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2016, with the headline 'City wary of hammer-blow'. Print Edition | Subscribe