As Manchester City look to fulfil more historic feats this season, the forthcoming period could be as crucial as any to their hopes.
Games against Arsenal, Everton and Chelsea over the next week will be pivotal in the Premier League title race, while Maurizio Sarri’s Blues await in the League Cup final. Then it is Schalke in the Champions League’s round of 16 and a visit to Middlesbrough or Newport in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
The challenge of winning four trophies in a season, unprecedented in English football, still remains a possibility, however imposing.
For Ilkay Gundogan it is one they must embrace. After last season’s Premier League and League Cup triumphs, he says the City mantra is always to do better.
“We will try to be in every competition as long as possible,” Gundogan told Sport360 exclusively. “That’s what our target should be.
“Already we are in one final, like last year, the League Cup. It’s always good to win this trophy even though some people think we should not prioritise this one.
“But we are in the final, it will be a special feeling to be at Wembley, against Chelsea, a tough team, and it’s going to be a great game, and we want to win it as well.
“Then we have the three other competitions to go for. Not including the Premier League, at least we can try to be better than last season in two of the competitions, and if we reach that point then we have a chance of doing it.
“We have reached the same in the FA Cup and we have the Champions League that we want to do well in as well. We are feeling good and want to push as much as possible.”
After eight-successive wins, six clean sheets and 33 goals scored, City were upset 2-1 by Newcastle in midweek.
But Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Leicester means the gap is five points rather than the seven expected and hope remains.
Pep Guardiola will expect a response against Arsenal on Sunday and Gundogan recalls how chastening defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester spurred their recent winning run, which included victory over Liverpool.
“It was disappointing for our run to end [at Newcastle], but we have to keep going and keep believing,” he added.
“I think the games we lost in December opened our eyes a little bit you know.
“We were not efficient enough anymore and made some mistakes so we conceded goals too easily.
“After these games we knew we had to improve, especially defensively, because the quality we have up front is ridiculous and we know we can always score.
“I think in the title race it’s crucial to be defensively as solid as possible.
“With the quality we have in the team, it feels like every player can replace the other one and the quality does not drop.
“There’s huge potential in that team and we have to show it on the pitch. These home games with Arsenal and Chelsea are very important.
“We are going out to win these games, but you can’t deny both have a lot of quality and it’s very important to be good defensively against these teams and not concede – and then I believe we can win both games with our quality.”
On the subject of quality, Gundogan admitted surprise at Mesut Ozil’s struggles to get into the Arsenal starting line-up.
Having played with and against his German compatriot and friend, he said Ozil, at his best, was comparable to City’s playmaker and assist king Kevin De Bruyne.
“Both are game changers,” said Gundogan. “Kevin is a little bit more aggressive in his style and, at Mesut’s best, both are on a similar level.
“I think people always criticise Mesut because they think his attitude on the pitch is not a good one, that he doesn’t care that much.
“But I think people just struggle to accept that you can have the more emotional kind of players, the more aggressive ones and you have players like him, you know, that need maybe this calmness for their game.
“It looks a bit more elegant and slow, but believe me it’s so difficult to defend against these kind of players. They make everything look so easy and I think sometimes you forget to appreciate these kind of things.
“Obviously we always watch games and, even me, we always think we know better. But on the pitch it’s always a different story.
“A player like him, with his huge talent, I don’t think it just surprises just me, but a lot of people, that he doesn’t play regularly.”
He added: “Of course I have sympathy for him. Also, because I know the more regularly you play, the easier it is because you have the rhythm and just keep going and you don’t think about certain things too much.
“My experience from the last couple of years at City is that you get your game time and then the next few games there’s always someone coming in with similar quality, ridiculous quality, and our manager in these kind of cases has a very tough job.
“He always has to choose who to pick and try to divide game time throughout the whole squad. That’s a very tough thing to do. In a team like Manchester City, Arsenal, and other big clubs, it’s quite difficult just to have the same 11 players starting every week
“From my own experience, the more you play, back-to-back games, the better you feel, with more self confidence and rhythm.”
Where Ozil’s future at Arsenal remains uncertain, more so with the arrival of Denis Suarez from Barcelona, Guardiola has made it clear he wants to keep Gundogan at City.
Talks have taken place on extending the midfielder’s contract that ends in 2020.
And Gundogan said: “I’m happy where I am right now. I enjoy my football, I don’t think in a sporting way there is any other place to be right now. But I still have 18 months to go. I’m 28 now, not the youngest anymore, but I don’t think there is any pressure, not for the club, not for me to rush it.”
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The Premier League continues this weekend after some unexpected results in the midweek programme.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at the talking points ahead of the action.
Will normal service be resumed?
The midweek fixtures threw up a number of surprising results, most noticeably strugglers Newcastle recovering from conceding a goal in the first minute to beat title contenders Manchester City. That gave Liverpool the chance to move seven points clear at the top of the table, only for Jurgen Klopp’s side to also let an early lead slip as they were held to a 1-1 draw at Anfield by Leicester. Liverpool must wait until Monday for their away trip to West Ham, by which time the gap could be down to two points if City can beat Arsenal at home.
Never ever underestimate the Foxes. @HarryMaguire93 doing his best to keep the title race tight.— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) January 30, 2019
What impact will deadline day signings have?
The biggest deal on transfer deadline day saw Newcastle break their record to sign Paraguay’s Miguel Almiron from MLS side Atlanta United for £20m, as well as signing Monaco defender Antonio Barreca on loan. Wolves signed Atletico Madrid full-back Jonny Castro Otto for £15million after a successful loan spell, while the next highest fee was £7million as Ante Palaversa moved to Manchester City but immediately returned to Hajduk Split on loan. Almiron will be under the spotlight at St James’ Park, but that midweek win over Manchester City will help ease some of the pressure.
Newcastle have broken their transfer record for the first time in 14 years.— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) January 31, 2019
Miguel Almirón the first player they've spent over £20m to sign. ⚫️⚪️ pic.twitter.com/pesAP31YvX
Can Crouch cut the mustard at Burnley?
“I feel that the older I get, the more hungry I am,” said former England forward Peter Crouch after moving from Championship side Stoke to Premier League Burnley. Crouch, who turned 38 on Wednesday, has made 462 Premier League appearances for six different clubs, scoring 108 goals. Burnley fans could be forgiven for feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the deal, but Crouch has no doubts that he can be a success. “I’ve got the will to succeed and prove people wrong,” he added. “I feel like I have been proving people wrong my whole career.”
Is there any life left in Huddersfield?
The Premier League’s bottom side were active in the transfer window, with five players leaving on loan and three coming in. However, while Jason Puncheon brings plenty of experience, Jaden Brown and Karlan Grant are 19 and 21 respectively and have the look of signings for the future, rather than with an immediate impact in mind. The Terriers are 12 points adrift of safety and could already be preparing for next season in the Championship.
What is going on at Chelsea?
Maurizio Sarri’s side have lost their last two Premier League games by an aggregate of 6-0, but sandwiched in between were cup wins over Tottenham and Sheffield Wednesday, the former taking the Blues into the Carabao Cup final. Chelsea were labelled “embarrassing” by TV pundit Alan Shearer and Sarri himself said the 4-0 defeat at Bournemouth was “difficult to understand”, but Sarri will need to get to the bottom of the issue soon after slipping out of the top four and with a resurgent Manchester United just two points behind.
Plan B? No chance ❌— Goal (@goal) February 1, 2019
Maurizio Sarri wants Chelsea to be like Barcelona. pic.twitter.com/wy5Vj3xT5V
Manchester City host Arsenal on Sunday in this weekend’s big-ticket fixture in the Premier League. City will be looking to put the stutter against Newcastle United behind them and get their season back on track. Arsenal have that top-four spot to fight for as the teams head into the business end of the season.
This fixture comes as a must-win for Pep Guardiola as he looks to keep the pressure on Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. The ex-Barcelona coach has never had problems seeing off Arsenal. Yet, after the midweek blip on Tyneside, he will be under pressure to deliver a win.
Here we take a look at some of the tactics he could employ in the big game.
Press, counter-press, suffocate the defence
Both teams build from the back and are hence prone to yield under pressure. However, City’s players are more press-resistant and are potent enough to break Arsenal’s pressure. Guardiola must hence use pressing and counter-pressing to suffocate the Arsenal defence and force them to commit a mistake.
Given how fragile the backline is, one slight crack can ensure that the floodgates open for Emery’s men and City will then take all three points from the fixture rather comfortably.
Hence, it all comes down to Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane forcing the Arsenal defence to misplace a pass or give the ball away in a dangerous position.
Be wary of Arsenal’s quick transitions
City will, in all probability, dominate the possession and dictate terms in midfield. Although Arsenal build from the back themselves, they are more likely to catch city on the break and use Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s pace to score on the counter.
Hence, Kyle Walker and Danilo must be extra cautious while advancing forward. By ensuring that Arsenal are not able to convert a quick transition, the hosts will be striking out the Gunner’s most likely source of goals.
It would also help if the defensive high line is a bit conservative and stays low at times. But it’s highly unlikely that Guardiola will give up on his philosophy, unlike when came up against a ‘Gegenpressing’ team at Anfield a few weeks ago.