EPL TALK: European ban spells chaos for reeling Man City

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. (PHOTO: Reuters/Phil Noble)

SINGAPORE — How have your favourite English Premier League (EPL) teams performed over the past week? And how will they fare in their next matches? Yahoo News Singapore looks at the key talking points surrounding the league in this new weekly series:

City in disarray as players, Guardiola consider futures

WHAT HAPPENED: It could not have been a worse week for Manchester City. And it is not because league leaders Liverpool have opened up a record 25-point gap atop the EPL.

No, it is because the defending EPL champions have been slapped with a two-season ban from European competitions and fined 33 million euros (S$49.7 million) by Uefa, after the European football governing body declared that the club “committed serious breaches” of its licensing rules and Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.

Under Uefa rules, clubs are meant to spend only as much on players and wages as they earn, and there are limits on the amount of additional revenue a club’s owner can put in from their own pocket.

According to an expose feature in 2018 by German newspaper Der Spiegel, City had lied about the true source of millions of pounds’ worth of sponsorship income, and had hidden various costs that should have been factored into their FFP calculation from 2012 to 2016.

Perhaps more damningly, Uefa had further said that City “failed to cooperate in the investigation” – as they had continually and belligerently denied any wrongdoing since investigations started.

City, of course, will appeal, and will portray themselves as victims of Uefa’s prejudicial investigations. But with the appeal likely drag on for several months, it will spell plenty of upheavals and uncertainties within the players and, crucially, manager Pep Guardiola, as they are barred from competing for the only major title they have yet to win.

For starters, the expensively-paid talents are unlikely to stay in a club which cannot guarantee Champions League football for the next two years, especially stars in their prime like Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane. Plus, they would rightly feel that the ban was through no fault of theirs.

Manchester City players such as Raheem Sterling (left) must be contemplating their futures in the club after the two-season European ban. (PHOTO: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Guardiola is a world-class manager, but he is better adept at shaping a top-class squad with brilliant tactics, rather than rebuilding a club from scratch to challenge for honours. He has also not stayed for more than four years in any of his previous managerial stints, with his intensity often resulting in eventual player clashes or his own burnout. He is unlikely to stay until the ban is over.

It will be chaos for City’s oil-rich Abu Dhabi owners and directors, as they try to appease their squad and convince them that they will not be punished in any manner. In truth, they have only themselves to blame for this mess, as they could have gotten off lighter had they admitted to their financial cheating.

They are still belligerent about fighting the ban, but the damage has already been done. If Man City – who are already enduring a sub-par season by their lofty standards – do not win the Champions League this season, they might not have the opportunity to try again with this current squad.

WHAT’S NEXT: Guardiola has to lift his players up as they face West Ham in their postponed EPL tie on Wednesday (19 February). Given West Ham’s struggles, this should not prove too difficult, but City will then resume their Champions League quest against Spanish giants Real Madrid. With their current troubles, that match will take on a much bigger significance.

Prediction: A 2-0 win against West Ham.

Tottenham's Son Heung-Min celebrates scoring the last-minute winner against Aston Villa. (PHOTO: Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Son key for Spurs in holding on to vital 5th spot

WHAT HAPPENED: The ramifications of Man City’s European ban does not reverb only amid the club. If they are banned, then their eventual Champions League spot will likely be given to the club that finish in fifth place this season.

And there are a host of clubs who could take that fifth spot, with just six points separating fifth-placed Tottenham and 11th-placed Burnley. The race for fifth could turn out to be the most exciting battle for the rest of the EPL season, with Liverpool making the title race a virtual procession.

Certainly, the romantics’ choice to clinch that lucrative spot would be Sheffield United, just promoted from the Championship and defying all expectations that they would be relegation candidates this season.

Under the guidance of Chris Wilder, the prime contender for Manager of the Year honours along with Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, Sheffield United have played some stylish football while retaining their defensive steel against all comers. One hopes they can sustain their brilliant form for another few months to clinch that all-important fifth spot.

For Manchester United and Arsenal, clinching fifth spot would be a lone bright spot in a season of struggles in mediocrity for both. Hardly deserved, but it would buy time for the two young managers, United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, as they try to cast away the negativity that has creeped into both of their fan bases.

For Tottenham, the current occupiers of that fifth spot, maintaining that position until the season’s end would be vindication for owner Daniel Levy’s decision to fire Mauricio Pochettino and hire Jose Mourinho to arrest their early-season slump.

Spurs have yet to look their best, but Mourinho has somehow kept his side winning matches despite the injury loss of key striker Harry Kane. Not surprisingly, Korean forward Son Heung-min has stepped up and scored crucial goals, such as the brace he scored against Aston Villa to pull out a thrilling 3-2 win on Sunday.

Son will need to keep up his brilliance and hope his teammates can chip in as Spurs attempt to hold off the challengers for their current position.

WHAT’S NEXT: After the Champions League tie against RB Leipzig on Wednesday, Spurs have a chance to jump to fourth place when they face Mourinho’s former team Chelsea, who are one point ahead of them.

Chelsea manager Frank Lampard. (PHOTO: Reuters/Jon Super)

Lampard has finally hit managerial wall

WHAT HAPPENED: It had to come, and Chelsea’s 0-2 league defeat by Manchester United on Monday (17 February) confirmed it: Frank Lampard – like so many young and inexperienced managers before him – has hit the wall.

Since the start of the year, his Chelsea side have won just once out of six EPL matches, and the Blues’ grip on their Champions League spot has been loosening by the week.

More worryingly for Lampard, it appears that other teams have figured his team out. Rivals would patiently defend and frustrate the Blues players, before exploiting Chelsea’s weakness in dead-ball situations to score goals.

But it is symptomatic of all young managers (and young teams): they would start a season fresh and eager, full of intensity and drive, but once opponents figure them out, they would not have an alternative plan to counter.

Lampard may grumble about video-assisted referee (VAR) calls going against his side in the loss against Man United, but he must start devising new strategies – both tactical and motivational – for his demoralised side, in order to lift the Blues out of the doldrums.

It is a tall order for any young manager, even a magnificent ex-player like Lampard. He need only look at his United counterpart Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to understand that, after the initial spurt of success, it is a tough grind to maintain a team’s winning ways. The pressure is officially on for Lampard.

WHAT’S NEXT: It will be an edgy reunion with their beloved ex-manager Jose Mourinho, when Tottenham visit Stamford Bridge on Saturday (22 February). Lampard’s limited tactical nous can be badly exposed by the wily Portuguese.

Prediction: A 1-0 Spurs win.

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