A trip to Bournemouth on Saturday will inspire thoughts of what might have been for Manchester City, who have not recorded back-to-back Premier League victories since crushing the Cherries 5-1 in mid-October.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side led the league then and felt certain they would be in contention for a third title in five years, but now they are struggling just to make certain of finishing in the top four.
It would be embarrassing indeed if Pep Guardiola, who will replace Pellegrini in the close-season, was without Champions League action in his first campaign at Eastlands.
Amid poor results, City have faced embarrassment off the field too, with Martin Demichelis having been charged by the Football Association in relation to alleged betting offenses — although there is no suggestion that the charge relates to any matches in which the centre-back has played.
On the field, City, who are through to the Champions League quarter-finals, have taken just seven points from the seven league matches they have played since it was confirmed on February 1 that Guardiola would leave Bayern Munich to succeed Pellegrini.
It should be pointed out the League Cup was won during that period, but a club of City’s vast wealth set their sights rather higher than that and they are just one point ahead of West Ham and Manchester United in the fight to qualify for the Champions League.
In mitigation, Pellegrini can point to a lengthy series of injury problems; goalkeeper Joe Hart and forward Raheem Sterling were the latest to be struck down, during the 1-0 defeat at home to Manchester United just before the international break.
Goalkeeper Hart has been able to resume gym work after suffering a calf strain, although the trip to Bournemouth will come too soon, and so Willy Caballero will deputise.
– Dangerous –
Sterling’s groin injury is likely to keep him out for several weeks, but Pellegrini is set to welcome back winger Kevin De Bruyne and midfielder Samir Nasri after long-term injury absences.
Nasri’s last appearance was against Bournemouth five-and-a-half months ago, with hamstring and groin problems keeping the French midfielder out of action.
De Bruyne has not played since suffering knee ligament damage in late January, while England midfielder Fabian Delph has been unavailable with calf and hamstring problems since early February, but all three players are back in training.
“It’s impossible to say where your fitness is at accurately,” Nasri said.
“The only way to find out is by playing matches and the more you play, the quicker your fitness will return to normal levels.
“I have a lot of respect for Bournemouth because they play football.
“Even when they were struggling, at the start of the season they were still playing a certain type of football and at home, they are really dangerous.”
Any lingering concerns Bournemouth might get drawn into a relegation fight were eradicated by a run of three successive victories that was ended by defeat against Tottenham last time out.
Instead, with a 12-point cushion to the bottom three, Eddie Howe’s side are focused on by securing a mid-table finish in the club’s first season in the top flight.
“We’ve done well to this point. We have put ourselves in a good position so it’s in our hands, but we’ve got to try and finish the job now,” Howe said.
“As we know in this league, nobody gives you anything – you’ve got to earn it. And we still feel we need some more points to achieve our target.
“I think it’s been the hardest season emotionally. The complexity of the league, the pressure you’re under, the interest in the league – they all make it compelling, but they also make every day more of a challenge.”
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