Michael Cox considers Roberto Mancini and Rafael Benitez's probable strategies.
"Whereas Chelsea were involved in the Europa League on Thursday, City have had a free week,"
Manchester City v Chelsea, Sunday 1:30, Sky Sports 1.
Match Odds: Manchester City [1.98], Chelsea [4.3], The Draw [3.75].
If this match has twice the excitement of the reverse fixture...it will still be extremely dull. November's 0-0 at Stamford Bridge is a contender for the worst Premier League match of the season, and is best remembered as Rafael Benitez's debut game, where he was met with a chorus of boos from home supporters.
In fairness, Benitez was always going to be cautious at first. Roberto Di Matteo's sacking was unquestionably harsh, but his side's clear weakness was without the ball, particularly on the flanks. The wide midfielders didn't offer the full-backs enough protection, and Benitez insisted upon structure and caution in his opening matches in charge (he started with two 0-0s) and then his side gradually opened out and became more attacking. Therefore, this match shouldn't be quite as underwhelming as the reverse context, although with Manchester United so far ahead in the Premier League, this match doesn't have the true feel of a second versus third clash.
Roberto Mancini has three major selection decisions. The first is fitness-related - Vincent Kompany will return in place of Joleon Lescott if considered fit enough. The other two are more tactical - David Silva will definitely start on one flank, but James Milner or Samir Nasri could start on the opposite side. Nasri was criticised by Mancini this week for his lack of commitment, and Milner seems the more logical option, particularly as Mancini will be keen for Ashley Cole's runs to be nullified.
Upfront, there's the usual debate - Edin Dzeko with Sergio Aguero just behind, or Aguero as the main striker with Carlos Tevez floating between the lines. The latter seems a better partnership, and is more logical against a Chelsea side lacking pace at centre-back.
Benitez's headline selection decision is upfront. He defended Fernando Torres' performance in midweek, when Demba Ba was cup-tied for the Europa League game against Sparta Prague, but it's difficult to see why he wouldn't start Ba in this match.
But more important is where Benitez uses Ramires. He could field the Brazilian in a central midfield position, or use him on the right of an attacking band of three, with Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel in the centre. That would mean only using two of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata - Oscar seems most likely to be dropped - and would say a lot about Benitez's attacking intentions. At centre-back, David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic were rested in midweek, which probably indicates they'll start here.
The key to this match is the performance of two former Valencia teammates - Silva and Mata. They act as their sides' chief playmaker - Silva is likely to drift inside from the left, while Mata might be used in a more central role, but they both provide a major creative threat from between the lines. Coping with them will be crucial - both managers will urge their sides to remain compact, and restrict the space between defence and midfield, which could lead to a cautious performance from both sides.
An important factor to consider, however, is City's rest ahead of this game. Both these sides were eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage, but while Chelsea had the consolation of the Europa League, City were out of Europe entirely. That means that while Chelsea have less than 72 hours to prepare for this match, plus a journey up the M1, City have had a free week. This is often considered purely in terms of fitness, but tactically it can have an impact too - Mancini will have been preparing his troops for the specific task of facing Chelsea. With that in mind, backing City at anything above [2.0] looks good.
But I'd recommend backing under 2.5 goalsmore - considering the previous meeting and the natural caution of both coaches, [2.22] is a fantastic price.