Manchester City-Aston Villa Preview
It may finally be time for Manchester City to be both England's Champions League saviours and champions of England.
Coming off perhaps their most complete effort in continental play, the Premier League table-topping Citizens look to avoid a letdown Sunday in the Midlands, where they face bottom-dwellers Aston Villa.
The two teams are separated by 19 places, 21 points and 27 goals through the first 11 matches, with Manchester City (8-1-2) leading Arsenal on goal differential and Aston Villa (1-1-9) enduring a miserable campaign that has seen them drop seven on the bounce in league play. But it's been the disappointments of City - specifically their inability to progress beyond the round of 16 in the Champions League - that have provided the majority of fodder for public criticisms of a side now tipped to win their third Premier League title in five seasons.
Manchester City, though, assured themselves a third consecutive trip to the knockout round Tuesday with their 3-1 victory at Sevilla, clinching a spot with two group matches to spare. Manager Manuel Pellegrini boldly opted for an aggressive starting XI, and the Chilean was quickly rewarded when Raheem Sterling and Fernandinho scored in the first 11 minutes before Wilfried Bony restored the two-goal advantage later in the first half.
"I think we played one of our best games," said Pellegrini, who was again without injured first-choice striker Sergio Aguero and midfielder David Silva. "The score didn't even reflect what happened on the pitch, we could have scored five or six.
"We had changed the way we're playing and I was really pleased with the way the three midfielders played and pressed higher," he also told City's official website. "We had prepared to play one-touch football and that was the reason we created so many chances."
Such a style is made a bit more difficult without Silva, who was expected back from an ankle problem as early as last week but won't face Villa and has been left out of Spain's squad for international break friendlies. That moves the playmaker's return to the Liverpool match on Nov. 21, when City could also have Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta and Samir Nasri.
Sterling's first Champions League goal moved him into a tie with Kevin De Bruyne for second on the team across all competitions with six. City's seemingly endless depth was further highlighted when offseason signing Fabian Delph - who will make his return to the Midlands after six seasons with Aston Villa - made his first appearance since Aug. 29 after being sidelined due to a hamstring injury.
Yet the one-touch football Pellegrini sang the praises of may not be readily available given Villa likely will bunker on defence and be content to counterattack to prevent City from running rampant in Remi Garde's managerial debut after being hired Monday and signed through 2019.
Garde was a directors' box spectator Monday when the Villans lost 3-1 to Tottenham Hotspur under caretaker Kevin MacDonald, and the former Lyon manager - a member of Arsenal's 1998 Premier League title-winning team - is going to be hard-pressed to turn the Villans around in time to avoid the drop.
"Remi came with ideas, honesty, humour and a steely sense of what it will take for Aston Villa to be what it is meant to be - hard-working, tireless, creative and unwilling to concede," owner Randy Lerner said.
"Nobody at Villa can deny that we are way behind," the American owner added. "We recruited aggressively this past summer and it is our responsibility to now harvest this talent rather than buckle under pressure and criticism. We are better than that."
Seeing backliner Delph in Citizen blue may make Villa only further lament their lack of quality on defence. The Midlands club have not turned in a clean sheet since opening the season with a 1-0 victory at Bournemouth and have shipped 15 goals during their losing streak.
City did the double over Aston Villa last season, including a 2-0 victory in the corresponding fixture on late goals by Yaya Toure and Aguero. Manchester City have won seven of the last eight between the teams, recording five shutouts during that run.