Manchester City are closing in on Champions League qualification and it will be virtually guaranteed if the Eastlands outfit manage to win at Everton on Saturday and Tottenham Hotspur suffer an unlikely home defeat to relegation-haunted Blackpool.
The Blues go into the weekend in fourth place in the table – five points behind Arsenal with a game in hand – and are still hoping to challenge the Gunners for third spot, meaning a place in the group stages of the Champions League rather than having to enter the qualifying rounds. However, Goodison Park has not been a happy hunting ground for City over the years; a 2-1 win in April 2009 was the first in 11 attempts since October, 1992. Even so, the Toffees are a full 14 points behind Roberto Mancini´s men and despite losing just one of their last nine league matches, a 1-0 defeat at Manchester United, their good run of form has probably come too late to secure a Europa League spot.
On the injury front, Micah Richards is hoping for a return to the squad for the Merseyside encounter, although Carlos Tevez´s hamstring tear is responding slowly to treatment. The City skipper has resumed light training but a more realistic target is the home game with Tottenham on Tuesday; if Tevez does not make that then boss Mancini has already said he is unlikely to be considered for the FA Cup Final against Stoke City the following Saturday.
For both players the next few days will prove critical, yet the distraction of the cup final is something that needs to be guarded against, particularly since some might see the Spurs game as something of a dress rehearsal for Wembley rather than a season-defining encounter; in all likelihood City will need to get at least a point from it to maintain their top-three ambitions.
If Richards does recover in time for the final then it gives Mancini a selection headache concerning the right-back position. Pablo Zabaleta has filled in admirably in the England Under-21 international´s absence and was superb in the semi-final win over Manchester United, yet Richards has been a revelation in the second-half of the season and has shown the form that propelled him into the full England side.
One alternative for the City boss would be to switch Zabaleta to left-back where the Argentine international has deputised several times, even if he is predominantly right-footed. Jerome Boateng misses out through injury and Aleksandar Kolarov, while giving an extra attacking option down the left-hand side, has yet to convince fans he is the answer defensively.
With Stoke right-winger Jerome Pennant hitting a purple patch in the past few weeks, Zabaleta may be the better alternative – which would be ironic. Almost £30m was spent last June in trying to shore up a position which has been a problem for the last three years; to now find out your best option for the left-back spot is a right-back could be considered an error of judgement.