Manchester City-Watford Preview
Though Manchester City have an embarrassment of riches in attack, it's the current gaping hole in the heart of their defence that likely will determine the success of the Citizens' Premier League title drive.
Once more, City will try to adjust without Vincent Kompany starting Saturday at Vicarage Road against a Watford side trying to fight the complacency of their surprising success to the first half of the season.
Kompany did not play Tuesday against Leicester City, having suffered a second-degree tear of the calf during a nine-minute substitute stint in Manchester City's Boxing Day win over Sunderland. Manager Manuel Pellegrini has ruled his talisman and Belgium international out for at least a month, but also called upon his defence to deliver efforts similar to the one against the upstart Foxes that resulted in a road point following their scoreless draw.
"I'm not a doctor, but with a muscle injury, it will be very difficult for him to be back in less than four weeks," Pellegrini told the team's official website. "But without him, we must continue to defend as we did tonight."
City (11-3-5) have been a shell of themselves without the towering defender. With him, they did not concede a goal in five league road matches, going 3-2-0, and are 7-2-0 overall with two goals yielded in his 729 minutes logged, which he's canceled out with two goals of his own.
Without him is a much different story. Pellegrini's team is 4-1-5 in those matches, shipping 18 goals. The discrepancies on the road have been stark and foreboding - City had been outscored 8-2 in losing all three matches before Tuesday's draw at Leicester City.
Pellegrini's pairing in central defence is now Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala, and the two combined for 12 tackles against Leicester City, who showed plenty of respect to Man City by not using a second striker with Jamie Vardy until the 67th minute.
Watford likely won't back down given the success Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney have enjoyed all season, and City goalkeeper Joe Hart is counting on Otamendi and Mangala to help end their team's road blushes and build on their current third-place status.
"Without doubt, to push on, we need to win," England's No. 1 keeper said. "Win all our home games and be damned hard to beat in our away games as well."
City are trying to end a six-match winless spell (0-3-3) on the road. Sergio Aguero, who left the pitch Tuesday livid he wasn't awarded a penalty by referee Craig Pawson, has yet to score outside the Etihad in league play this season, and Manchester City have netted only eight goals in their nine road matches.
Watford (8-5-6) were the class of the promoted sides through the first round of fixtures and enter this match ninth on 29 points, trailing West Ham United and leading Stoke City on goal difference. The busy fixture period has caused problems for the Hornets, who had their five-match unbeaten run end with Monday's 2-1 home loss to Tottenham Hotspur after a hard-fought 2-2 draw at Chelsea on Boxing Day.
Ighalo continued his torrid form by extending his goal-scoring streak to six matches in league play, netting his 14th to move one behind joint leaders Vardy and Romelu Lukaku. The Hornets were unable to hold out for the point as they played the final half-hour with 10 men and Heung-Min Son netted late for Spurs.
Still, 29 points and a top-half status in the table at the turn is more than even the most optimistic Hornets fan could have imagined considering their last full season in the top flight back in 2006-07 ended with 28.
"That's the halfway point in the season, and we would have taken this position at the start," Ikeche Anya told Hornets PlayerHD. "Whereas last year our attacking prowess was at the forefront, now it's from the back to the front.
"Man City is another massive game, but this is why we want to be in the Premier League, these are the ones we all look forward to."
Defender Nathan Ake will miss this match due to his red card against the Spurs, but he also didn't play in the reverse fixture at the Etihad in August, a 2-0 Manchester City victory courtesy of second-half goals by Raheem Sterling and Fernandinho seven minutes apart.
Hart was barely challenged as Watford failed to place any of its seven shots on target.