As far as the Premier League title race is concerned Manchester City still very much have their fate in their own hands with Manuel Pellegrini’s team having two games in hand on both Liverpool and Chelsea. Tomorrow sees Manchester City host the weekend’s early game as Mauricio Pochettino’s hugely impressive Southampton side pay a visit to the Premier League runners-up of last season.
The danger for Manchester City at this point is not having the points on the board that Liverpool and Chelsea do, any slip-ups in their matches in hand could have a disastrously detrimental effect to their title challenge and Manchester City will have to show a far greater resolve than they did in the latter days of the 2011-2012 title race in which they were eventually successful courtesy of Manchester United throwing away points against both Wigan Athletic and Everton in a matter of days.
Southampton have lost on their last two trips to the Etihad stadium but will head to Manchester tomorrow in high spirits with the Saints having not endured the malaise that sets into clubs who have nothing left to play for in a season. Southampton are safe from relegation sitting comfortably in eighth position and are out of all the domestic cup competitions, this usually causes players to take their foot off the gas near the end of the campaign with the summer break taking up the majority of their subconscious. This Southampton team is different however with this in no small part down to the English contingent in Pochettino’s side desperately fighting for a space in Roy Hodgson’s heavily anticipated World Cup squad.
Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert are all in contention to travel with the Three Lions to Brazil later this year and their recent performances have done their case no harm at all. Lallana has been the pick of the bunch. Having been at Southampton since the turn of the Millennium, Lallana has seen all levels of football, from the depths of League 1 right through to the top half of the Premier League, challenging for a Europa League place. Lallana has had numerous offers to leave Southampton for what many would perceive as bigger clubs however Lallana has stayed loyal to the club with both parties reaping the rewards.
Labelled by his club manager this week as “having the qualities of Andres Iniesta” Lallana has been occupying the role in between the lines in recent months. Sitting just behind the striker, Lallana has been the main creative force behind Southampton’s high goalscoring season creating numerous opportunities for Lambert and Rodriguez. It is rare in recent times that England have had such a technically gifted player as they do in Lallana with the Southampton playmaker having all the attributes to be that missing bit of craft in the final third which can separate two teams in a tight tournament match.
It certainly seems at this stage it would be criminal of Roy Hodgson not to take Lallana to Brazil and try and shuffle his forward line to accommodate him in his preferred position behind the forward.
Manchester City will need a strong performance from their central defensive pairing of Kompany and Demichelis if they are to limit Lallana’s influence with the communication between the two having improved since the debacle against Barcelona in the first leg which saw Demichelis sent off. Keeping a consistent defensive line will be key with Lallana’s ability to split a defensive with a reverse pass in behind to the lightning quick Rodriguez and if Kompany finds himself dropping a few yards back to make up for Demichelis’ lack of pace it could spell trouble playing the former Burnley forward onside.
Manuel Pellegrini will welcome back Sergio Aguero with the Argentine looking set to return from a troublesome hamstring injury at exactly the right time. Following last weekend’s draw with Arsenal, sections of the Manchester City support again voiced their frustration with Edin Dzeko’s perceived lack of consistency and the return of Aguero is likely to please fans.
Make no mistake, despite all Southampton’s excellence going forward and even in midfield with Victor Wanyama enjoying a fantastic debut season in England, although he is an injury doubt for tomorrow, it is defensively where you worry for the visitors tomorrow. Jose Fonte is a strong enough defender but you always feel there is a mistake in him, the same with goalkeeper Artur Boruc. The injured Maya Yoshida has been a big miss for the Saints this year. If Aguero does return to the starting line-up with David Silva in irresistible form sat just behind him then it could be a difficult afternoon for Pochettino’s side, Dejan Lovren will have to organise the defence tightly if they are too keep a string City forward line at bay.
There will be tension around the Etihad stadium tomorrow afternoon, not least because of the resurgence of Liverpool in the title race but also the fact that City can’t afford any more slip-ups. If City can maintain a high performance level over their next four matches then it is likely the title will stay in Manchester for a second successive year however if City’s big players like Yaya Toure and Aguero struggle in the run in, tomorrow could be a surprisingly difficult afternoon for Manuel Pellegrini’s side.