Mercurial Sergio Aguero could provide Manchester City with the edge over Liverpool at Wembley
The masterful Argentine has hit the net in eight of his 11 starts in 2016 going into the League Cup final
The first trophy of the English season is up for grabs on Sunday when Liverpool play Manchester City in the League Cup final, which is an enthralling prospect on paper but the importance of victory is open to question as both clubs put their energies into other competitions.
The fixture congestion for the most successful clubs at this stage of the season makes it increasingly tricky to second-guess the intentions of managers in England’s cup competitions. Only last weekend City boss Manuel Pellegrini played a bunch of kids in the FA Cup fifth-round tie at Chelsea as he held back his most important senior players for the Champions League midweek tie away to Dynamo Kiev, which City duly won 3-1.
That clearly put the Champions League above the FA Cup in Pellegrini’s thinking, even though some pundits believed he could have played his first-string side in both matches and still won in Kiev against the under-prepared hosts.
Liverpool boss Juergen Klopp likewise put out a strong side in the Europa League on Thursday night, which may have been an indication that he valued the continental competition above the seemingly minor prize at home. That would be understandable, as winning the Europa League offers the route to the Champions League that seems out of reach via the Premier League, with Liverpool nine points off fourth place.
The question is whether either manager will rest key players for Sunday’s final, with a Premier League meeting between the two sides to follow on Wednesday night.
Liverpool may have almost given up on fourth place, but the consolation prize of fifth – and entry to the Europa League if all else fails – is only three points away in the current standings.
Judging by Pellegrini’s attitude to the FA Cup, it seems his joint-priorities for City are the Champions League and Premier League, which makes him more likely than Klopp to downgrade the importance of winning the League Cup.
Even so, the expectation is that both sides will include at least eight of the regular first-teamers and, assuming they put out reasonably strong sides, the advantage could lie with City as they have had an extra day’s rest after the European ties.
Liverpool played at home on Thursday night, which meant they did not have to travel, but like most clubs they have suffered a dip in form on the weekends after Europa League ties. This season they have won only one out of six in those circumstances – at home to lowly Swansea – and the record is one win in three even after a home tie.
Hope for Liverpool stems from their 4-1 win away to City in the Premier League in November, shortly after Klopp took charge. The counter-attacking tactics were perfect that day but the early vibrancy of Klopp’s reign has faded and Liverpool have won only three out of 11 against Premier League opponents in all competitions since the turn of the year, and two of those three victories were against current bottom-four teams.
City’s record is more solid, although not without inconsistencies, and they are deserving favourites. In fact, perhaps their odds are too long. It is important that Sergio Aguero plays, as he has scored in eight of his 11 starts in 2016 and been City’s first scorer in five of those games.
City have been shut out only once in those 11 games with Aguero and nine of the matches have gone over 2.5 goals, so the bets to consider are the City win, Aguero to score first and over 2.5 goals.
By the time City kick off, they will know the results of the league matches involving their three title rivals.
Leicester are the only ones in action tonight and a home match against fourth-bottom Norwich gives them a good opportunity to crank up the pressure. The leaders have won seven and drawn one of their eight home games against teams outside the top six.
The big league clash of the weekend is Manchester United v Arsenal tomorrow night and again it might be worth opposing the Europa League side, in this case United.
Arsenal’s only bad result in a top-six clash was the 4-0 defeat at Southampton and United’s low-scoring trend at Old Trafford gives them a good chance on the handicap at least.
Tottenham are not the most secure short-priced bet at home to Swansea, having lost their FA Cup tie against Crystal Palace last weekend after a Europa League tie, but of course they should win on paper.
Manchester City win
Odds look good if Aguero plays in the final
Stoke home win
Premier League banker of the weekend
Arsenal on handicap
Should maintain title challenge
Watford home win
Good value for underrated hosts
Monchengladbach on handicap
Decent chance against Europa League losers
Of the last 16 League Cup finals have finished 2-1