This was supposed to be a battle for the top spot in the English Premier League. The favorites Manchester City and their high-priced talent hosting plucky Tottenham Hotspur, the team no one expected to be in the title race. Spurs only three points back and looking to make their intentions as title contenders clear by toppling the giant and moving level with them, while also adding a bit of revenge after being embarrassed by the Citizens 5-1 early in the season. It was set up to be a dream match-up at Etihad Stadium and nothing was going to stop it, only Spurs did manage to stop it. They went out and drew with Wolves (WOLVES!) at home (AT HOME!), ruining the top of the table drama.
What was once a match with an angle for even the laziest of writers is now a match that the laziest of writers (right here) have to delve into the "what if" for an angle. For example, what if Spurs didn't draw against Wolves and a Spurs win would put them even with the Citizens atop the Premier League table then. How great would this be then? Correct answer: the greatest.
Instead of THE GREATEST MATCH EVER! what are we left with? A lot of absences. Emmanuel Adebayor is out for Spurs because he's a City loanee. City will be without Africa Cup of Nations participants Yaya Toure and Kolo Toure and Vincent Kompany is out due to suspension. Mario Balotelli is also battling an injury, further weakening the Citizens, while Tottenham have doubts about Ledley King and Sandro, both of whom could return this weekend depending on whose reports you believe.
The absences leave both teams with major questions to answer and they won't be answered until the referee blows the opening whistle. Exactly what formation Spurs play remains a question. Without Adebayor, do they dare playing Jermain Defoe as a lone striker with Rafael van der Vaart underneath him or the even more scary option, Roman Pavlyuchenko? Do they play the two together, sitting Aaron Lennon most likely and pushing van der Vaart out wide? All are options and with Harry Redknapp you never know quite what they will do.
The player choices aren't nearly as complicated for City manager Roberto Mancini. Some combination of Nigel de Jong, Gareth Barry and James Milner will be in the center of the pitch and Joleon Lescott and Stefan Savic will team in the center of defense. Beyond that, the team will be largely the same as it has been all season, but the question is how they battle in the center without Yaya.
Yaya is the unquestioned leader in the midfielder and without him and, especially his range, there's a crack in the Citizens. Against a team like Spurs who leads the Premier League in both possession and pass percentage, Yaya's absence can really be exposed because as good as Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Balotelli are, they have had stretches where they have been starved of service and their talents wasted. Even if King is a go for Spurs, tracking the City strikers and David Silva for 90 minutes is a losing battle, but if they can be starved of service then Tottenham have a fighting chance.
How Spurs approach the City midfield when the Citizens have the ball will also be interesting and maybe the most important aspect of the match. Silva is the maestro for the Citizens and Scott Parker will be charged with closing down on the Spaniard. This will result in Parker being stretched further up and down the pitch than normal, but if he can close down on Silva and minimize his impact, his job will be done.
Of course, the absence of Kompany and possible absence of King make both back lines shaky, but as interesting as things can be in the front and back, it is the midfield that matters most. When the Citizens put the screws to Spurs earlier this season, Parker was not yet with the team. Redknapp and Co. will be hoping that he can make the difference this time around in shutting down Silva. Toss in the absence of Yaya and the midfield battle could flip from where it was in August.
Between the addition of Parker and all those absent, this isn't anything like the match earlier this season, but then again, the two teams' place on the table isn't the same either. In August, City were running their way up the table and Spurs were floundering and now they can move just two points back of the leaders. That's not as much fun as the chance to move joint top, but you can bet they'll take it.
Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur
Game Date/Time: Sunday, January 22, 8:30 a.m. ET, 1:30 a.m. local
Venue: Etihad Stadium, Manchester, England
TV: Fox Soccer Channel (USA, English), Fox Deportes (USA, Spanish), SkySports 1 (UK), Sportsnet World (Canada)