Manchester City focused on Aston Villa, title challenge, not sanctions
MAY 06, 2014 2:13p ET
MANCHESTER -- Manchester City can take a massive step toward the Premier League trophy with a win on their home turf Wednesday night over Aston Villa. But a match that has a whiff of a coronation about it has been overshadowed by the news that City are facing stiff penalties for breaching UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules – a development which will have a profound impact on next year’s Champions League campaign.
City need just four points from their final two games to wrap the title up, and they are expected to get them against Villa and final-day foe West Ham. City’s impressive home form – winning 15 of their 17 league matches and losing just once, to Chelsea – should be enough to see them past a Villa side they have beat in their last six home meetings. But – and there is always a but – given that Liverpool was widely expected to romp past Crystal Palace on Monday and decidedly did not, no one is taking anything for granted.
Manuel Pellegrini told the media Tuesday that, “all I know is that we have to beat Aston Villa.”
“The Premier League is very difficult and you cannot be sure until the end,” said Pellegrini. “It’s a difficult game because all the teams are under pressure, but I hope if we play at home as we have done so far we will win the game.”
He will have all but one of his players available: Sergio Aguero has not recovered from a groin injury and may be out for the remainder of the campaign.
"Injuries are just Sergio Aguero,” said Pellegrini. “He couldn't recover 100 percent from his groin problem, so he's not in the squad list. Maybe he can have a chance for Sunday. We'll see how he improves during the week to see if he can play on Sunday.”
Jesus Navas and Yaya Toure are available; across the pitch Gabriel Agbonlahor is a doubt for Villa with a knee injury.
Yet, it was not tomorrow’s match or the expectation that City would soon be hoisting their second title in three seasons, but the specter of UEFA’s bite on City’s future that was the talk of this town today, with the details emerging over the morning and the afternoon. City faces crippling sanctions: an estimated $85m fine, a reduction in the number of players they can field in Europe and a hard wage cap. The fine is painful – but a reduction in squad size would be a very damaging penalty indeed. A normal European squad is 25 players; reports are that UEFA is seeking a cut to 18 or 21 players, which would put the team on a razor’s edge.
Pellegrini did not directly address the issue Tuesday, saying “when it is official, we can analyze what happens with the team,” but the news was clearly leaked to the French and British news media ahead of any potential settlement. Paris Saint-Germain are the other major club thought to be facing a similar penalty.
City have lost some $254m over the last two seasons, well over the maximum $63m UEFA allows over a two-year period. The club is thought to have until Friday to negotiate a “settlement” with UEFA or face a judgment from an adjudicatory panel that is non-negotiable. City would have the option of appealing their sentence to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
City are thought to be very resistant to any penalty at all, making the argument that they have taken big strides toward addressing their losses and noting that they have been building up their grassroots program for the future. That argument has not washed with UEFA, and talks between the two sides are said to be tense.
But to the present and tomorrow night: while City have not always impressed this season, they have managed to be clinical at home. The toughest game of their run-in, a 3-2 win over Everton, is behind them, and City look to have all the tools they need to brush past a punchless and bottom-tier Villa side that looks to be the subject of a post-season shuffle.
Villa are thought to be up for sale by American Randy Lerner, and there is doubt over the future of manager Paul Lambert after a season which all agree has been a disappointment. (Lambert also saw two of his assistants suspended last month by the club under murky circumstances.) Villa have won just one of their last four matches, a surprising 3-1 win over Hull last week that ensured they would remain in the Premier League for another season. As a result, they have little to play for here except pride.
But it should not go unrecognized that Villa have been here before this season and won: Villa scored two late goals in September to down City 3-2 at Villa Park behind hero Andreas Weimann in one of the season’s early shocks. Can Villa repeat the feat? Don’t bet on it – but don’t bet against it, either, the way this season has gone.