It is Champions League or bust this year for Manchester City as the two-time Premier League champions operate under the cloud of a potential two-year ban from European competition handed down last week by UEFA.
Looking to get into a rhythm ahead of their midweek round of 16 tie versus Real Madrid, the Cityzens face Leicester City in a showdown of top-three teams in the Premier League.
The Premier League title is a lost cause for City (17-3-6), who are 22 points adrift of champions-elect Liverpool with 12 matches remaining and their closest pursuers. Pep Guardiola’s side can still achieve a domestic cup double for the second straight season, looking to win the Carabao Cup for a third consecutive year while also reaching the fifth round of the FA Cup.
But it is Ol’ Big Ears that remains City’s elusive white whale since Sheikh Mansour bought the team in 2008. His millions have fueled the rise of City to an elite football club in Europe, but some of those millions are the reasons UEFA claim the Manchester club have operated above the Financial Fair Play laws, leading to Friday’s stunning announcement from the federation headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.
Club CEO Ferran Soriano has said the team will appeal the ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, and released a video statement through the team Thursday in which he said, «The owner has not put money in this club that has not been properly declared.
«We are a sustainable football club, we are profitable, we don’t have debt, our accounts have been scrutinised many times, by auditors, by regulators, by investors and this is perfectly clear.»
On the pitch Wednesday against West Ham United, City played the part of a team who have closed ranks and embraced the us versus the world mentality given the circumstances. Guardiola’s side dispatched of the East London side 2-0 as Kevin De Bruyne set up a goal by Rodri on the half-hour before adding the second just after the hour.
De Bruyne’s corner kick Rodri flicked inside the right post was his Premier League-leading 16th assist, two off his career best set in 2016-17. The Belgium international is on pace to shatter Thierry Henry’s single-season record of 20 established with Arsenal in 2002-03.
Ever the perfectionist, though, De Bruyne felt his team could have done better coming out of the midseason break as their showdown at the Bernabeu with the 11-time European champions looms Wednesday.
«It was OK,» the star midfielder told City’s official website. «I think we saw its’ been three weeks without football and we felt a little bit of rustiness, but we played a good game.
«We still have a lot to play for with the two cups and Champions League so let’s hope we can find rhythm as quickly as possible and win some titles.»
The two matches this week also serve as a boost for the match fitness of centre back Aymeric Laporte, who is expected to play his third match since a lengthy spell on the sidelines with a knee injury. He became the first player in Premier League history to be part of 43 wins in his first 50 matches.
To a degree, City’s ban is Leicester’s boom as the Midlands side have a far bigger margin of error if CAS do indeed uphold the UEFA decision. The Foxes (15-5-6) are four points behind City for second but nine clear of Chelsea for fourth in their best season since their dream run to the Premier League title in 2016.
Brendan Rodgers’ side have played to draws on either side of the midseason break, including a scoreless deadlock at fellow European hopefuls Wolverhampton on Friday. Leicester City held out for the point despite playing the final 14 minutes with 10 men after Hamza Choudhury was given his walking papers following a second booking.
Choudhury will serve his ban in this match, but the midfield is further thinned with the absence of defensive ace Wilfred Ndidi, whom Rodgers ruled out of this contest with a knee injury that sidelined him the previous two league fixtures.
«Wilf won’t be available for the weekend,» the gaffer told the club’s official website. «He’s still in a process to try and get fit so we’ll see how he is next week. I’m not sure.
«He’s doing work inside, but you then have to progress that to outside and then when he can join the team. It’s another intensity to join the team and then to play.»
Defender Ryan Bennett could be tipped for his Leicester City debut as the January loanee from Wolves was ineligible to face his parent club. A candidate to fill the gaps in central midfield is Matty James, who has yet to feature this season as he recovers from an Achilles injury.
Looking to get back on the goal-scoring prowl is veteran striker Jamie Vardy, who has 17 goals and leads Manchester City counterpart Sergio Aguero by one for the league’s Golden Boot. Vardy last billowed the net in the reverse fixture at the Etihad in December, staking Leicester to a short-lived lead in a 3-1 defeat.
Vardy has six goals in 13 lifetime matches against Manchester City, while Aguero has five in nine versus the Midlands club, including a four-goal effort in the 2017-18 season. Vardy’s one-time strike partner and current Manchester winger Riyad Mahrez could be in line for a start with David Silva likely to be held out with a hamstring injury to try and make him available to face Real Madrid.
Manchester City have not done the double over Leicester City since 2014-15 but are 5-2-1 in the last eight meetings in all competitions. They have just one win in their last six visits (1-3-2), however, to King Power Stadium.