Weekend Review: City limits?
Our football team answer the key questions from the weekend and look ahead to the midweek Champions League action.
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Manchester City went odds-on for the FA Cup after being paired with last year's winners Wigan in the quarter-final draw. Is there any value in opposing Manuel Pellegrini's men as they look to avenge last year's final defeat?
Matt Brocklebank (Sportinglife.com): City should certainly prove too strong for Sky Bet Championship side Wigan and have last year's memories as extra motivation should it be needed. It's no surprise to see City a shade of odds-on across the board, with main dangers Arsenal set to face third-favourites Everton in the quarters. This a great chance to win some silverware, as I still have some lingering doubts about them seeing it out in the league, and I think there's still plenty of mileage in their price at 10/11.
Simon Crawford (Sportinglife.com): There's every chance that an understrength City would be too much for Wigan, especially at home, so you would think they are going to reach the semi-finals at worst. But how far they progress in the Champions League will ultimately dictate how they approach the FA Cup. Like it or not, 'big ears' will take precedence for them even though they have such a strong squad. However, should they be eliminated by Barcelona then I think Manuel Pellegrini will take the FA Cup very seriously indeed which could be bad news for those remaining in the competition as the City boss knows his reign at the Etihad will be judged on trophies won. The fact Arsenal will host Everton in the sixth round also plays into City's hands as one major rival will be eliminated but as Wigan showed last season you still do get upsets in the cup. Arsenal also have a stern Champions League test against holders Bayern Munich and, like City, if they are eliminated then the FA Cup will take on added significance so I can see punters wanting to have a gamble on Arsene Wenger's side.
Nick Hext (Sportinglife.com): City are certainly worthy favourites and the hope is lessons have been learnt from last season's final upset against Wigan. Manuel Pellegrini's side haven't always been impressive away from the Etihad Stadium so progression from the semi-final at Wembley wouldn't be a given. Arsenal and Everton are both realistic alternatives and the winner from that qyarter-final at the Emirates will carry plenty of momentum. Our Andy Schooler has his heart set on Hull claiming victory at Brighton tonight as he backed the Tigers at a big price in his outright preview of the competition.
BarryJohn Nelson (Sky Bet): In a word - No. An easy draw for City combined with the fact that their two main rivals have been drawn against each other for the second successive round means it's all smiles at the Etihad. While the romantics may look to a repeat of last year's shock win, realists will point to a much weaker Wigan this time around and a City side with ambitions of an unprecedented Quadruple.
City's focus turn to the Champions League this week as they host Barcelona in the first leg of their round of 16 tie. Can they put home advantage to full use and how do you rate their chances of seeing off Barca and making a big impression on the competition further down the line?
MB: I can certainly see City getting a goal or two on Tuesday night but I think they'll be lucky to take a draw to the Nou Camp as Barca will be buoyant after beating Rayo Vallecano 6-0 at the weekend. Lionel Messi looks to be approaching his peak again and Neymar came off the bench to score the sixth on Saturday, so City's slightly fragile defence will need to be at their best. There's no doubt we're in for a treat and 'both teams to score' punters shouldn't hold back, but I just can't see City proving good enough over the two legs.
SC: City have been nothing short of sensational at home this season, but they will need to be at their very best against a Barca side who have recovered from some recent slip-ups and once more look the 'real deal'. Messi is back among the goals which is a worry and Neymar announced his return from injury with a spectacular strike in the 6-0 rout of Rayo Vallecano at the weekend. However, even at their peak Barca were not the best of travellers and as Celtic showed they are far from being invincible. But being at home and having creative players such as David Silva, Jesus Navas and Yaya Toure in their ranks, then City will naturally attack and that could play into Barca's hands. I think a clean sheet will be vital but City will require an advantage - even if it is just one goal - to take the Nou Camp to have any chance of progressing. If they can pull it off, then City will have as good a chance as anyone of winning the competition with matchwinners such as Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo in their ranks. But getting past this formidable Barcelona side will take some doing, especially over two legs.
NH: It's a big ask for City. We all know about Barcelona's pedigree at the top table of European football and the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Neymar and, of course, Lionel Messi have any team in a cold sweat. Bayern Munich won with ease at the Etihad earlier in the season and it wouldn't surprise me if another lesson was handed out to Manuel Pellegrini's side. Star striker Sergio Aguero is a huge miss and that leaves the main men in my view as Alvardo Negredo and Yaya Toure. If they have big games Barca's defence can be breached. City need a lead to take to the Nou Camp but I just can't see them getting that much-needed advantage.
BN: Both sides have defensive frailties and not much in the way of a 'Plan B' so expect goals. With Messi again looking in great form after his injury lay-off I'd be very surprised if City can shut them out. I'd expect a high scoring draw in the first leg meaning an away win would be required for City to progress, something which even the most die-hard fan would admit may be a step too far. A 2-2 draw on the night is 10/1 and 8/15 on Barcelona to qualify is a fair price.
Arsenal face reigning Champions League holders Bayern Munich at the Emirates on Wednesday night. Can they carry their FA Cup momentum into this tie and somehow negotiate a way past the Bundesliga leaders?
MB: The momentum gained from beating Liverpool in the cup on Sunday will certainly give Arsenal a lift going into this one and, considering their excellent home form this season, there's no reason why they won't give Bayern a run for their money in the first leg. If they can take a narrow lead to Germany then Arsenal fans will rightly be getting their hopes but there's no denying this is a seriously tough draw and they're going to need the rub of the green along the way.
SC: Beating Liverpool will have given the Gunners some much-needed confidence, even though it was not a totally convincing win. However, my gut instinct is that Bayern simply have too much firepower and I can see Arsenal being put to the sword much as Liverpool did to Arsene Wenger's side nine days ago. If it were a one-off game then I would have far more faith in Arsenal getting through, but the fact it's two legs should see the defending champions progress without too much fuss and I can see them really turning on the style at home.
NH: I give Arsenal more of a chance of an upset than City. The Gunners know the task facing them after pushing Bayern all the way last season. This is a better Arsenal side than 12 months ago and the stage is set for Mesut Ozil to really take the tie by the scruff of the neck. All the focus will be on the playmaker from both Germany and England with the continued absence of Aaron Ramsey heaping further pressure on the former Real Madrid man. I think Arsene Wenger will have the advantage for the second leg and then it really is all to play for!
BN: Arsenal were fortunate to beat Liverpool on Sunday and they in turn are comfortably worse than Bayern Munich so I fear for the Gunners on Wednesday night. They seem to have been struggling to keep the wheels on their title challenge in recent weeks and a high octane game against the best team in the world is not what they need right now. A Munich win to nil is 9/4 and worth a fiver of anyone's money.
Fulham have a new manager in the shape of Felix Magath, who sounds positive he can keep the Cottagers in the Premier League. Do you think another change at the top will have a positive effect on the club for the remainder of the season?
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MB: Replacing Rene Meulensteen so swiftly looks a very strange move from the outside looking in but the Fulham owner is clearly taking one final throw of the dice to try and keep them up. A lot will depend on how the players feel as the new man hasn't got much time to get them on his side and he's obviously stuck with the current personnel at his disposal. I don't see a way back for Fulham, despite the fact they are far from cast adrift at the foot of the table. Former Bayern Munich boss Magath arguably had his best stint as a manager when helping Stuttgart avoid relegation from the German Bundesliga in 2001 but he looks a risky appointment at this stage of the season and has a huge task on his hands.
SC: It simply can't have a positive effect. Fulham had earned a tremendous 2-2 draw at Manchester United and were unlucky to be edged out 3-2 by Liverpool. They played well in both games but most importantly they had showed spirit and determination which is credit to Rene Meulensteen. So why decide to change now with just 12 games to go? The whole situation has been handled appallingly by the club as although Magath was appointed, it was unclear whether Meulensteen had been sacked or not. At the time of writing, it had still not been resolved. So why Magath who has no Premier League experience? It's a huge gamble to take at such a critical stage of the season. The problem with Premier League clubs being run by owners with bottomless pockets is that the owners begin to think they can also run the club ... and there's a big difference to owning and running one. The players must also be wondering what on earth is going on and I think their task to stay in the top flight has been made much harder by a rash decision. It's nothing short of bonkers!
NH: This news was a bit of a shocker on Friday night and it's definitely the last roll of the dice at Craven Cottage. There was no noticeable upturn in fortunes since Rene Meulensteen kicked Martin Jol out of the hotseat and it was hard to see improvement coming anytime soon. The main - and rather key - problem Magath has is a limited squad but Darren Bent and Scott Parker have both been top Premier League performers in the recent past and can lead the survival bid. The wildcard in the ranks though is Konstantinos Mitroglou. The Greece international arrived from Olympiacos on deadline day and has the reputation to give Fulham fans hope. Remember the Cottagers only need to finish above three other Premier League sides with Cardiff, Sunderland, West Brom, Norwich, Crystal Palace, Stoke, Hull, Aston Villa, Swansea and West Ham still right in the mix. All is not lost.
BN: Removing a manager with a quarter of a relegation dogfight left is almost always a terrible idea but when you have a manager with the pedigree that Magath has you can see the logic in Fulham's thinking. Will the ultra-disciplinarian have the desired effect? Only time will tell but certainly in terms of an instant impact you only need to look to Sunderland last season, where fellow hard-liner Paolo Di Canio kept his sided in the top flight against the odds. Two huge away games coming up at West Brom and Cardiff in the next three weeks means if you fancy them to survive get on the 2/1 now. After these fixtures they will either be right back in the mix (and a much shorter price to survive) or absolutely dead in the water.