Manchester City-Sunderland Preview
With the worst-kept secret of the Premier League finally out of the bag, it's titles or bust for Manuel Pellegrini in his swan song at Manchester City.
After the unsurprising announcement that still sucked all the air from the suspense of the final day of the transfer window, Pellegrini and City seek to continue their fine run of form Tuesday with a victory over relegation-threatened Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.
Long-rumoured to be the case but confirmed by the club Monday, Manchester City (13-5-5) announced it reached a three-year agreement to have Bayern Munich's Pep Guardiola take over the team effective next season. The biggest surprise in City's statement was the admission the negotiations were a "re-commencement of discussions that were curtailed in 2012" during Guardiola's one-year sabbatical before the former Barcelona manager opted for the Bavarian powerhouse.
Guardiola announced in December he was leaving Bayern at season's end, instantly stoking speculation he would reunite at Manchester City with former Barcelona director of football Txiki Begiristan and chief executive Ferran Soriano.
The statement further read Pellegrini, "who is fully supportive of the decision to make this communication, is entirely focused on achieving his targets for the season ahead and retains the respect and commitment of all involved with the leadership of the Club."
Pellegrini made the announcement he was leaving at the end of his pre-match conference Monday, and the Chilean was at ease - that manner always consistent when addressing his job status - after saying he knew of the decision a month ago.
"There has been a lot of speculation about things,'' said Pellegrini, who had been dogged by job security rumours for much of the last two seasons, "but they (the club) are not doing anything behind me.''
With a 2013 Premier League title and a League Cup trophy already to his credit, Pellegrini will depart as one of City's most decorated managers regardless of how this season ends. Yet the chance to leave on the highest of summits - Manchester City are still competing for four pieces of silverware - affords Pellegrini the opportunity for a legacy like few others in football.
Manchester City enter this match ahead of Arsenal on goal difference for second and three points behind Leicester City, whom they host in a crunch encounter Saturday. For much of the season, City have nipped at the Foxes' heels and right now are hoping the timing in making this decision public doesn't put a spanner in what has been their best form of the season to date.
City - 4-2-0 in their last six in all competitions - will play at Chelsea in the fifth round of the FA Cup after their 4-0 thrashing of Aston Villa in the Midlands on Saturday. Kelechi Iheanacho recorded a hat trick, and the 19-year-old Nigeria international's reward was a spot on City's Champions League roster for the knockout rounds, a decision made easier for Pellegrini with Samir Nasri sidelined long-term with an injury.
"We needed another striker and Kelechi is in a good moment," the manager told the team's official website.
"Kelechi is one player in our squad - it's important when young players have the option to show why they're an important player. He will continue trying to fight to start every game. For me, as a manager, you have to work with the whole squad as we have to play so many games."
It capped a busy week for City, who followed up their 2-2 draw in league play versus West Ham with a 3-1 triumph over Everton in the second leg of their League Cup semifinals last Tuesday, advancing to Wembley opposite Liverpool on a 4-3 aggregate. That Feb. 28 contest will be Pellegrini's first chance at a trophy this season, and they also face Dynamo Kiev in a two-legged tie in the round of 16 in Champions League later this month.
This charge, though, will come without winger Kevin De Bryune, who is expected to miss three months with knee and ankle ligament injuries suffered late against Everton. It may also hurt City's bid to improve their road play - they are 1-4-3 in their last eight league matches outside the Etihad.
Sunderland (5-4-14) come into the match aiming to put a stop to a two-match winless run in league play, and a victory could pull the Black Cats out of the relegation zone depending on other results.
Their last league encounter saw Patrick Van Aanholt and Benik Afobe trade goals in a 1-1 stalemate with Bournemouth on Jan. 23.
New signings Lamine Kone and Wahbi Khazri are looking forward to their potential debuts for the Wearside club.
"We now have three very important games. In France when you play Paris it is a big game and in England when you play City, Liverpool or United it is the same so I'm very excited," said Khazri, who arrived from Ligue 1 side Bordeaux.
"I respect Manchester City however I'm not worried. I just hope to play and show the Sunderland fans what I can do," added Kone, who arrived from Lorient.
Manager Sam Allardyce knows if his side are to have any chance, they must close down City striker Sergio Aguero, who has five goals in his last three matches in all competitions.
"We have to be capable of trying to smother and stifle one of the best strikers in the world," said Allardyce. "That has to be our first priority and I think our attention needs to be on the fact that he's the big difference between what Man City have been doing in terms of results."
Man City routed Sunderland 4-1 at the Etihad on Boxing Day, led by De Bruyne's goal and two assists. He set up Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Bony in the first half before scoring a goal 10 minutes after the restart. Yaya Toure also got into the act in the first half before Fabio Borini pulled one back at the hour mark.