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Manchester City-Watford Preview
The metrics of Pep Guardiola's first season at Manchester City would point to an improvement across the board: The Citizens have more wins, more goals and a better goal difference than their final season under Manuel Pellegrini.
But the biggest metric on whether it's been a success on the blue side of Manchester remains in question as City look to secure automatic qualification into the group stage of the Champions League in Sunday's finale at Vicarage Road against Watford.
The man who garnered 21 trophies at European powerhouses Barcelona and Bayern Munich knew there were going to be some growing pains at Manchester City (22-9-6), who had won two Premier League titles in Pellegrini's three seasons but struggled to break through in the Champions League until last year's first semifinal appearance in club history.
City fans had visions of grandeur with Guardiola's arrival, and those expectations only skyrocketed after the team won their first 10 games in all competitions, sweeping into group play of the Champions League after winning a two-legged playoff and vaulting to the top of the top-flight in the fall.
Eventually, though, those growing pains came.
There was the inconsistent play at goalkeeper, something Guardiola put in motion with his exile of No. 1 and England international Joe Hart to Torino in Italy's Serie A after bringing in his Barcelona shot-stopper Claudio Bravo as part of his play-it-out-from-the-back philosophy.
At times, central defender John Stones has lived up to his promise and potential, with all of England hoping the 23-year-old will be a mainstay in the national lineup for the next decade. But he has also made ghastly mistakes, some that may have been prevented if captain Vincent Kompany hadn't been injured so often.
Then there are the rigours of the Premier League itself, with its tempo, physicality, demanding schedule and depth of strength. These were things Guardiola never encountered at such a volume in his previous two stops because both the Catalans and Bavarians were so domestically dominant that he could rotate his squads as needed.
Even with the deep pockets of team ownership and the Barcelona front office reunion of Guardiola, Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, City find themselves in need of a victory. They are third in the table, two points better than Liverpool and three ahead of Arsenal.
A draw would see them finish no worse than fourth, but would allow Liverpool to potentially pip them for third if the Reds were to close their season with a four-goal victory over relegation-bound Middlesbrough at Anfield. A defeat would throw everything into chaos since Arsenal could potentially - yet highly unlikely - finish third if they run riot at the Emirates and beat Everton by five or more goals. Playing in the Europa League after five straight seasons of Champions League play could result in a devastating setback to the timetable of City's ambitions to win Europe's top club title.
"It is a crucial game for us, absolutely a final," Guardiola told City's official website Friday. "It's in our hands. Just look at what we have to do, win the game against a team who at home over the season made a good result. Every game is pressure, every game we play with everything.
"It's in our hands. It depends not on Arsenal or Liverpool. We have to go there and win the game. We are going to finish the season with 15 or 17 points behind the first and second in the league, the gap is big, so we have to work harder next season to reduce that gap."
City have won three on the bounce and are unbeaten in their last seven league matches (5-2-0) after dispatching West Bromwich Albion 3-1 on Tuesday. Gabriel Jesus scored in the 27th minute and turned playmaker for Kevin De Bruyne's goal two minutes later. Yaya Toure added a third just before the hour as City were able to give Pablo Zabaleta a stylish send-off by bringing him on for the final 28 minutes.
"It's been nine wonderful years," said Zabaleta, who logged 333 games in City colours and will leave with at least one FA Cup and two League Cup titles in addition to two Premier League medals.
"When I first came to Manchester, of course, it was a different era for the club. A few days later everything changed. The new owners came in and from that moment I understood we needed to work hard to make the club better."
While striker Sergio Aguero did not score Tuesday, he did register an assist and has 13 goals and four assists in his last 16 matches in all competitions. Jesus has three goals and two assists in his last four.
While City's ambitions are clear, the same cannot be said for Watford (11-7-19).
The Hornets reached 40 points in mid-April and seemingly put on their flip-flops as they have dropped five on the trot and will have a new manager once more in 2017-18 for their third straight season in the top flight. Whoever follows Walter Mazzarri will be the ninth boss on the touchline since Gino Pozzo bought the team five years ago.
After Quique Sanchez Flores departed Vicarage Road last season, Mazzarri will follow suit after the final whistle Sunday. He and the team reached a mutual understanding he would depart, but the manager unloaded on the team in an interview with the Spanish website MarcadorInt, according to the Watford Observer.
"It was a shame that right at our best, when everything was going well, when we were seventh, we had an incredible accumulation of injuries," the former Napoli and Inter Milan manager said. "Despite these fortunes, we were able to reach 40 points with six games remaining of the season, which is the record for this club.
"As we fulfill the goal of survival in advance, it is normal that from there the players will relax. This club does not have the same ambitions, the same mentality, as the previous clubs in which I have been. I tried to instill a winning mentality here, but between the injuries and the difficulties that have come at the end of the season, it has not been possible."
The "difficulties" Mazzarri could be referring to is a reported falling out in the locker room with players, most notably fan favourite Troy Deeney. He leads the team with 10 goals but has failed to score in Watford's last seven matches. Mazzarri has recently dropped him from the starting XI twice in favour of Stefano Okaka.
The manager, though, denied having given the interview during his pre-match news conference Friday.
"I have not released any further communication with any press since the statement from the club," he said. "Any quotes or declarations you have ready from any journalist since the club statement are not true."
Okaka had one of Watford's three goals Monday in a wild 4-3 loss at champions Chelsea. Etienne Capoue and Daryl Janmaat had the others as the Hornets scrambled from a 3-1 deficit and nearly stole a point from Stamford Bridge before conceding to Cesc Fabregas in the 88th minute. Watford will also be without defender Sebastian Prodl for this game after he picked up two yellow cards in Monday's defeat.
City are seeking their second straight league double over Watford after a 2-0 victory at the Etihad on Dec. 14. Zabaleta and David Silva scored on either side of halftime as the Sky Blues won their fifth straight on the trot in all competitions over Watford.
The Hornets have been outscored 7-2 while going 0-2-3 in five Premier League matches versus City, with their last point coming in a 1-1 draw at Vicarage Road in 2007.
Updated May 19, 2017