Should Pep Guardiola's Man City still be considered Champions League favourites?
Things look rather shaky in the blue half of Manchester this season. The unquestionable brilliance of Manchester City's dominance since Pep Guardiola took over has become quite questionable this season.
City's goal-scoring prowess is still the same, but things look bleak and leaky at the other end of the pitch. For instance, in the entirety of last season, Manchester City scored 95 goals in the league in 38 matches. While this season they are already on course to beat that tally - 52 goals already in half the number of matches, they have already conceded 23 goals in 19 league games, the same number of goals they conceded the entirety of the last Premier League season.
What is the cause of this awful display at the back end of the pitch? The unfortunate truth is, City themselves took the risk of not replacing club captain Vincent Kompany in the summer transfer window. Guardiola decided to get into the ongoing season with only three recognized senior centre-backs. While Leicester had put a hefty price tag on Harry Maguire, there's a feeling that City could have tried harder to replace their captain. And 19 games in, it already looks like an awful gamble that didn't pay off.
One of the reasons why Kompany was such an important cog in the city backline is because he was the prime leader of this City side. When he left, City suffered two big losses in one: first- their foremost leader of the last decade and second- an elite centre-back. Even when Kompany didn't play, he was there, calming things down in the dressing room. Sergio Aguero and David Silva are world-class players, but they don't have the leadership and influence of a certain Vincent Kompany.
City's backline has become even more fragile due to the absence of Aymeric Laporte, their chief defender and a truly world-class center back. He is almost irreplaceable in City's backline. Last season, Laporte played in 35 of the possible 38 matches in the premier league, In that time City kept 18 clean sheets and lost only 4 times. In contrast, they have already lost 5 out of the 15 matches they have played so far in the league without him this season. For me, Laporte is to City, what Virgil van Dijk is to Liverpool. The absence of such a key player will manifest in the results of any team in the world. In City's case, the Premier League title is all but over.
City's defense has been dreadful since Laporte's injury. Nico Otamendi recuperated his reckless defensive style, and Stones is still far from justifying the price City paid for his services (£47.5 million to Everton in 2016). The fact that Guardiola has been picking Fernandinho, a defensive midfielder, over Stones even when fit for most matches in the league, is evidence itself. All of this led to Fernandinho playing as a centre-back, more often than not. All these issues blended to a shaky defence throughout the season, and a shaky title defence indeed.
Similarly, in the Champions League, Manchester City were drawn in a group consisting of Dinamo Zagreb, familiar opponents Shakhtar Donetsk and Champions League newbie Atlanta. City won their group, but fairly unconvincingly. Having won their first match with a scoreline of 0-3 against Shakhtar away, City would win their next two against Dinamo Zagreb and Atlanta with scorelines of 2-0 and 5-1 at home respectively.
Their winning run was halted uncharacteristically at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'italia, with goalkeeper Bravo receiving a red card for a horrifying handball outside the box and Kyle Walker, an outfield player ended up playing the final 10 minutes as a goalkeeper, the match ended a 1-1 draw. Another Stalemate followed at the Etihad against Shakhtar. After 5 matches, City were winners of their group and a somewhat rotated side won 4-1 against Dinamo Zagreb in the last match of the group stage.
Now, the question is, Can City still salvage their season by reaching the latter stages of the Champions League?
Unluckily, for City, the draw of the first round of knockout stages was not kind to them. They have been given arguably the toughest possible draw (Real Madrid). Can they get past Zidane's men with that sort of defence, let alone reaching the semifinal or final of the Champions League?
Despite City's weakened defence, there is a silver lining for Guardiola's side, the fact that Madrid's performances haven't been up to par in recent times. Although they do seem like picking form in recent weeks, this City side possesses a more than decent chance of going through given their recent struggles. In all probability, things will become better once Laporte comes back. Madrid can not and should not be underestimated in the Champions League, but this City side possess more than enough in their arsenal to defeat Madrid, especially if Laporte comes back before the first leg of the tie.
There's no denying that a team cannot win the Champions League without having a splendid defence because you cannot defeat teams like Liverpool, Barcelona, PSG, etc. without being tight at the back.
The first leg takes place in the last week of February and Manchester City could be better defensively once Laporte returns. But due to the unpredictability of football, a bit of luck and kind draws, they might win their first Champions League.
Things do need to improve if City are to salvage their season. To do so, the club might even sign a centre-back in the winter transfer window. Even Laporte will be like a new signing, and a full-strength City side can give any opponent a run for their money.
Beyond all doubts, Manchester City are still one of the favorites to land the coveted trophy, it's just about if they can fix their defensive issues in time or not.Published 04 Jan 2020, 00:34 IST