Manchester City face West Ham in their penultimate game of the season on Sunday, knowing a win will put them within touching distance of the Premier League title.
Pep Guardiola’s side travel to London three points clear of Liverpool at the top of the table with two games remaining, and with Liverpool on FA Cup final duty they could extend the gap to six. A win at West Ham would leave City needing just a point on the final day against Aston Villa to clinch a fourth league crown in five seasons. Thanks to their superior goal difference, three points from their final two outings could even be enough.
David Moyes’ side are not going to make things easy though. Currently sitting seventh in the table, the Hammers are three points from sixth place and the final Europa League spot, currently occupied by Manchester United. Thanks to a superior goal difference, a win against City would see them leapfrog Ralf Rangnick’s side.
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With that kind of motivation behind them, City will have to win a number of key battles on Sunday afternoon.
It’s no overstatement to say that City are experiencing something of an injury crisis at the moment. With Kyle Walker, John Stones and Kyle Walker already out for the rest of the season, both Fernandinho and Aymeric Laporte limped off during City’s 5-1 win at Wolves on Wednesday.
Nathan Ake replaced Laporte in the second half, but he isn’t fully fit himself. That means that Rodri could be forced to drop back into defense, or that a youngster like CJ Egan-Riley could be called upon.
Either way, someone without much experience playing in central defense in the Premier League is going to have to cope with the likes of Michail Antonio and Jarrod Bowen.
West Ham are no slouches in front of goal – they’ve scored 57 league goals this season, the same as Manchester United and one more than Arsenal. This will be a huge test for City’s makeshift defence.
The defensive juggling Guardiola is going to have to perform will have a knock-on effect on his midfield selection, particularly if Rodri drops into the backline.
The Spaniard is key to how City not only attack but how they control and manage their opponents. While Rodri is not the most agile of holding players, his incredible vision, passing and reading of the game allow him to dictate City’s play and avoid giving away possession in dangerous areas.
West Ham are a team that like to counter, especially against possession-heavy sides like City. Without Rodri in the center of pitch, Guardiola could go with a double pivot of Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan.
The duo are two of City’s most reliable ball-players, but perhaps lack the defensive knowhow of Rodri or Fernandinho. They’ll need to work hard to make up for that and protect the middle of the field.
battle of wills
As mentioned above, West Ham have their own objective to achieve over the next two games. City must counter that with their own desire to get their title bid over the line – win in London and it takes a lot of pressure off against a potentially tricky final day assignment against Villa.
The West Ham crowd will be more than up for it, but City must channel their hunger and use their big-game experience to get the result they want.
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