Whether you think City’s final Champions League tie in Group F is dead rubber or merely an unnecessary journey and added distraction ahead of the biggest league game so far this campaign, Wednesday’s match with Shakhtar however meaningless it may seem in the short-term could actually prove much more important in the long run. With City already qualified to the knockout stages as group winners, there will inevitably much less pressure than during earlier group games this season. Nevertheless, if like Nathan Redmond you take everything that Pep Guardiola says as gospel then there is certainly no doubting his attitude towards this week’s clash with the boss clearly keen on making it six wins out of six to enter the knockout stages in style. As I’ve learned earlier this season for this very site, predicting a City starting XI before any game week is incredibly difficult but what can be said with some degree of certainty is that the club will surely rotate with Sunday’s Manchester derby in sight.
To what degree remains a mystery but still, I do feel it is important to underline that Wednesday’s game should simply not be written off as a pointless Champions League tie as whilst numerically it may be just that, there are plenty of talking points heading into this week’s clash which therefore makes a visit to the Ukraine all the more interesting.
A chance to impress the boss at the last minute
Commentators and pundits alike have remarked regularly this season that it is the mark of champions in waiting when either City (or United for that matter) has managed to grind out results when they’ve not played well. In recent weeks, City have perhaps not been completely at the races in comparison to their incredibly high standard of football at the start of the season and for that reason, forced rotation with the Manchester derby in mind could actually help City return to winning ways with the club’s fringe players now provided with the opportunity to stake a late claim for a starting place on Sunday’s game with a good performance in the Ukraine. You would expect the likes of Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Danilo to not only feature against Shakhtar but also hope to impress Guardiola with Sunday’s top of the table clash firmly in their mindset.
A decent run out before a testing one
Chelsea’s title success last season was largely put down to the fact that club had no European Football to compete with, therefore giving Conte’s men the opportunity to relax, recover and recuperate before the next big league tie seven days later. With City however, I feel that despite the obvious cons of both fatigue and tiredness, there is something to be said about being tested regularly at the highest level and with this in mind, perhaps a trip to the Ukraine and a run out against surprisingly high quality opposition this season could be the ‘intense training session’ that they need before the Manchester derby. With the result somewhat irrelevant in terms of qualification, it could well be a fixture that allows City to experiment and play much more freely without any added pressures.
Cometh the hour, cometh Phil Foden and Brahim
With the demand for instant results and success greater than ever before in the Premier League, the opportunity to play the likes of Foden and Brahim prove few and far between and if anything are solely limited to the Carabao or FA Cup competitions. Yet in building on their exposure to European Football during City’s home clash with Feyenoord a matter of weeks ago, a much longer run out arguably in the team’s starting XI could well be the next gradual yet important stepping stone in each player’s development. There’s no doubting the talent of either midfielder and I do feel that it’s about time that each had the opportunity to express themselves against opposition of the highest order in the Champions League. The question that remains however is whether Pep is as confident as us fans in giving either of them the nod so soon.
Keep focused and do not underestimate the opposition
For all the euphoria that late goals against Southampton, Bournemouth and West Ham United (to name just three) have brought City fans this season, the individual brilliance of the likes of Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne have in many ways papered over the odd crack here or there – not so much in terms of the physical quality of City’s play but more so City’s attitude to games against widely perceived ‘lesser opposition’. Shakthar epitomise just that with many supporters (including myself) predicting that they would comfortably finish in last place in Group F but have instead proved much tougher opposition than once believed. With Napoli waiting in the wings for any slip up against City, Shakthar will be much tougher opposition than they seem on paper and it is up to City to show their mental fortitude with a confident yet considered approach versus European opposition that have surprised many this season.
Playing firm but fair and avoiding any injuries
Above all, as a football fan all you want to see is your side give a decent account of themselves against any opposition, no matter their quality or circumstances surrounding the game and of course Wednesday’s tie is no different. As a City fan, I strongly feel that in defeat or victory, both positives and negatives can be taken from each game and there are always things to be learned. Therefore whilst a much more cautious approach should be expected from City, I see it as only fair that the club reaffirm their winning mentality with a proactive attitude towards winning the game. Conversely with what already seems a crucial tie in the course of a full Premier League season on the horizon this Sunday, ensuring that nobody gets injured is however the primary concern heading into Wednesday’s game as any injury could prove significant in how the club set up this Sunday.