Manchester City’s Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero (2nd L) celebrates with teammates after scoring the opening goal of the English Premier League football match between Sunderland and Manchester City at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland, north-east England on March 5, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SCOTT HEPPELL /
Manchester City’s Champions League qualification chances look a little more solid after a productive week, but there will still be little margin for error when they travel to Southampton on Saturday.
Pep Guardiola’s side enjoyed their first win in five Premier League matches last weekend, a straightforward 3-1 home victory over struggling Hull making City a little more secure in fourth place.
With Arsenal, one of City’s rivals for a top-four finish, losing 3-0 at Crystal Palace on Monday, and Manchester United looking increasingly to the Europa League for comfort, the picture is looking brighter for Guardiola as a testing first season in England draws to a close.
Not that the Spaniard is in a mood for complacency. For one thing, there is just a possibility, however slim, that fourth place will only bring a spot in next season’s Europa League.
That is because UEFA rules do not allow six teams from one national association to compete in the Champions League at the same time.
If Leicester win that competition, in addition to United securing the Europa League, and both sides finish outside the top four, then it is the fourth-placed team who must make way.
Of far more immediate concern to Guardiola than an English double in Europe, however, is the continuing vulnerability of City’s defence. They faced only one shot on target against Hull last weekend, and conceded a sloppy goal from it.
Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, recalled for his first Premier League appearance since January 21, was widely blamed for that goal, but Guardiola was quick to make clear afterwards he felt his team were responsible.
Whether it is Bravo or Willy Caballero who is selected in goal to face Southampton, they are set to see experienced club captain Vincent Kompany back at the heart of City’s defence.
– ‘Exceptional Southampton’ –
The Belgium centre-back, who has suffered a series of injury setbacks over the past three years, was rested against Hull to allow a minor leg problem to clear up, having made only his fourth league appearance of the season three days earlier, in a 2-1 defeat at Chelsea.
Kompany is available to face Southampton, whom he also played against in October, when the two sides drew 1-1 at the Etihad Stadium.
“I think Southampton are having an exceptional season,” Guardiola said. “They have, of course, a good manager (Claude Puel) and exceptional players in all positions.
“They have very good midfielders, all the strikers are so fast, they play the wingers inside. The full backs are guys who go up and down, they are a really, really good team. I was really impressed when they came here in October. It’s a really good test for us.”
Southampton have little to play for as they are comfortably above the relegation zone, but too far behind to the top seven to have a realistic chance of qualifying for Europe once again.
Maya Yoshida doesn’t feel that way, however, as the Japan defender believes he has finally established himself as a Premier League performer following the sale of Jose Fonte to West Ham and injury to Virgil van Dijk.
“I have been waiting for this chance for a long time,” Yoshida said. “Now I have to show everyone who I am.
“I’m showing it now, but if it’s not enough I will understand and I must keep showing a good performance until the end of the season and even more, for the next two or three years.”
Saints striker Manolo Gabbiadini is back following a groin problem, while midfielder Steven Davis has recovered from an ankle injury and can reclaim the captain’s armband from Yoshida.