April 17, 2015

The first segment of the season has gone almost perfectly for Pep Guardiola, and Manchester City have the chance to make it perfect ahead of the international break if they can defeat West Ham United on Sunday at the Etihad Stadium.

It was another busy and productive week for Manchester City (2-0-0), who have gotten off to the ideal start under their new manager. They followed up a 4-1 victory at Stoke City with a 1-0 second-leg win against Steaua Bucharest on Wednesday, advancing to the group stage of the Champions League with a 6-0 aggregate over the Romanian side.

The shutout also served essentially as a testimonial match for goalkeeper Joe Hart, whose style does not fit Guardiola's system. After serving as backup to Willy Caballero for City's first three contests, the England No. 1's fate was effectively sealed with the signing of Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo on Thursday.

"He's fit but he's not going to play this weekend," Guardiola said of Bravo, whose transfer fee reportedly cost £15 million as he was reunited with his former manager. "He's a goalkeeper with a lot of experience in Spain and in the national team."

"He played in important games to create something special for Chile," he added, referring to their back-to-back Copa America titles. "He's good in the build-up plays and quick off his line. He's a good player for us."

On Thursday, Guardiola and Manchester City also learned their Champions League road map, and the potential intrigue of a return to Barcelona was fully realised as the Citizens were grouped together with the five-time champion Catalans, Germany's Borussia Monchengladbach and Scottish champions Celtic.

It will be a second Champions League homecoming for Guardiola, whose Bayern Munich team was overrun by Barcelona 3-0 in the 2014-15 semifinals and lost 5-3 on aggregate to the eventual champions. Guardiola is counting on that giving him a comfort level he didn't have while with Bayern.

"I cannot deny it's something special for me to return to Barcelona - I grew up there, to play there at 13 to become a footballer. Most of my life I spent there," he said, adding, "if I continue to train at a high level and if we are lucky to be in the Champions League again, it will happen in the future.

"The first time it's 'wow' the second time it's the second time, then it's normal."

Sergio Aguero was rested Wednesday but he has provided the "wow" factor for City thus far with six goals in all competitions. After missing twice from the spot in Romania - while scoring three goals - he converted a penalty to open the scoring against Stoke and added a second before halftime.

Nolito put the match out of reach with a late brace, giving the newcomer three goals.

West Ham (1-0-1) have stuttered out of the blocks, and were unable to build on their first league win as they crashed out of the Europa League on Thursday. After putting themselves in position to reach the group stage with a 1-1 draw at Romanian side Astra Giurgiu last week, the Hammers dropped a 1-0 decision at their new stadium, leaving manager Slaven Bilic disappointed at a missed opportunity to play on the continent.

The manager, though, also may shoulder some of the blame after making eight changes to the lineup that defeated Bournemouth 1-0 last weekend.

"It is a huge frustration because I said before the game that this was one of the most important games of the year for us," Bilic told the team's official website after being eliminated in a final-round playoff by Giurgiu for the second straight year.

"We can always find excuses like missing players and that we should have scored the chances we created and all that, but we didn't play good. In the first half, we didn't play with desire as a team, it was all individuals and we were second best."

With the international break after this match, Bilic has yet to determine if star winger Dimitri Payet and midfielder Manuel Lanzini will get their first starts of the season. Payet, who helped France reach the European Championship final this summer, made his only appearance as a substitute in the season-opening loss at Chelsea.

"Maybe one of them will be in the squad for Sunday's game," Bilic said. "We still have one training session, but the situation is that after this game we have a couple of weeks and the temptation is not to play them because is it worth the risk?

"Of course If there is no risk, of course we would pick them, but there is a big question mark. Only if there is no risk are we going to use them, and then only one of them."

The Hammers are also staying active ahead of the close of the transfer window and have nearly completed a deal for Juventus forward Simone Zaza reportedly worth £24 million. Zaza, who missed a penalty kick in Italy's quarterfinal loss to Germany at the Euros, had seven goals in 24 matches in all competitions for the Serie A champs last season.

Bilic has all but ruled out first-choice defender Havard Nordtveit due to a foot injury and will likely restore midfielder Mark Noble to the starting XI. After a strong performance as a substitute Thursday, Ashley Fletcher could feature in this match.

West Ham claimed four points in last season's meetings, including a 2-1 win at the Etihad in which Victor Moses and Diafra Sakho scored in the first 31 minutes. Kevin De Bruyne pulled one back before halftime, but the Hammers held out in the second half to claim all three points.

Aguero and Enner Valencia each had braces in the most recent matchup, a 2-2 draw at Upton Park, and Manchester City are 9-3-2 against West Ham in all competitions since the start of the 2009-10 season.

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