On the day Prime Minister Theresa May calls a General Election, the maxim ‘A week is a long time in politics’, could just as easily apply to top flight English football.
Irrespective of the political Blue against Red battle on June 8th, Manchester City Manager, Pep Guardiola, is about to find out that five days can radically change the football landscape, determining whether he can win silverware, as well as secure a Champions League slot, in his debut season in England.
An FA Cup semi final win over Arsenal at Wembley on Sunday, followed by victory in the Manchester derby at the Etihad four days later, will go a long way to Pep securing two crosses in the appropriate boxes.
Guardiola will be helped in no small measure by the Easter resurrection of City’s on-field leader, Vincent Kompany, whose Man-of-the Match performance against Southampton has City supporters praying for their Captain Fantastic’s match fitness to be sustained.
Coupled with the imminent return of Brazilian wonder-kid, Gabriel Jesus – we’ll forgive him for not quite hitting his biblical deadline last weekend – and there are plenty of grounds for sky blue optimism.
The frustrations born of gathering only two points from a possible nine against Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea – three games where City could and should’ve won were it not for dodgy refereeing decisions and a profligacy in front of goal – can be banished with wins in the next two fixtures.
Obviously Guardiola’s chances of winning the Premier League are well and truly gone this season – only the second time in eight years in management that he will not have won a domestic league title.
That’s more than understandable this season (at least to level-headed City fans) given the teams ageing quartet of full backs, an injury-plagued Kompany and a goalkeeping situation, where Pep must take his share of the blame with the acquisition of Claudio Bravo.
Notwithstanding City’s shortcomings this season, it does beg the question how much better it could’ve gone had the skipper, Ilkay Gundogan and Jesus not been injured for prolonged periods?
After unparallelled success with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, City’s Catalan boss has never gone trophy-less in any season, so lifting the FA Cup on May 27th will rank high in his priorities.
Higher still, will be the pre-requisite of qualifying for a seventh consecutive Champions League campaign.
Both are perfectly achievable, but it’s the Champions League berth – preferably automatic qualification via third place – which is imperative, when it comes to landing top transfer targets this summer.
It’ll be a measure of the professionalism and application of a number of City’s players who are out of contract this summer, or who are unlikely to figure in Guardiola’s future plans, as to how the Sky Blues finish the season.
Gael Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta, Yaya Toure, Jesus Navas, Bacary Sagna and Willy Caballero all look set to go and question marks hang ominously over the likes of Fernando, Nolito, Kolarov and Bravo – depending on who and what you believe.
Fair to say there’s little or no chance of Joe Hart, Wilfried Bony, Eliaquim Mangala or Samir Nasri returning to the City fold.
When you appreciate the amount of players likely to leave the Etihad very shortly, one can but only admire the job Pep has done, rather than decry his work, during his first season at City.
To those who seek to chastise him for not doing more to strengthen the defence last summer, it’s worth remembering Leonardo Bonucci of Juventus and Aymeric Laporte of Athletic Bilbao came close to joining City.
If anything the chances of landing Bonucci could be higher in 2017, given a major reason for not moving last summer was a situation affecting the Italian centre back’s family in Turin.
But, as Pep himself has stated, now is not the time for transfer talk. It’s a time for winning football matches and another eight victories for City would see the season end on a real high.
The second installment of a league double over United in 2016/17 would maintain at least a four point buffer over Mourinho’s bunch with five games left to go.
On an even more optimistic front, the points gap could be bigger if United fail to win away at Burnley, as City do battle with the Gunners at Wembley.
There was a time when a Manchester derby win would’ve been the highlight of City’s season.
Thankfully those days are long gone as Premier League titles, FA and League Cup wins and Champions League clashes against the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, have become increasingly commonplace.
Nonetheless a win against the Trafford Troglodytes is always to be savoured and there’s more than just local bragging rights at stake this season – as has been the case in many of the derbies in recent years.
Who could ever forget the catalyst to City’s modern day success – the 1-0 FA Cup Semi Final win in 2011, the ‘Should’ve Been 10’ 6-1 Old Trafford massacre later that year, or the momentous 1-0 win at the Etihad on the run-in to City’s first Premier League title in 2012.
Happy days indeed and occasions that could be repeated in 2017.
Another Wembley win on Sunday and a derby triumph on Thursday night, will help fast-track Guardiola to the first installment of the success he craves with City.
It’d be a cracking mandate for Pep and one that will certainly get the vote from the overwhelming majority of City fans.
By David Walker
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