Banana skin for City

Manuel Pellegrini

Manuel Pellegrini

LONDON. — Manchester City must put a potentially ruinous fortnight behind them as they seek to reboot their faltering season with a big performance in their Champions League soccer last-16, first leg trip to Dynamo Kiev tonight.

With their English Premier League title hopes badly dented by successive home losses to fellow contenders Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur, City received heavy criticism for fielding a second-string team in Sunday’s embarrassing FA Cup capitulation at Chelsea.

Suddenly, the lavishly-funded team who had been campaigning for a “quadruple” of titles finds their season in danger of careering off the rails with manager Manuel Pellegrini brought to task by a former England great over his moans about the club’s fixture congestion.

Alan Shearer, the Premier League’s all-time leading scorer, criticised City’s approach, telling the BBC he could not understand Pellegrini’s decision to start six teenagers in the team which was thrashed 5-1 at Chelsea.

“Barcelona played on Saturday and they face Arsenal in the Champions League on Tuesday. It’s the same amount of time (between games) as City, but they didn’t rest any players,” Shearer said.

“I don’t get the talk of resting players. City are — and want to be — a very big club on the global stage.

“They’ve got more resources than anyone. I never see Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo wanting to be left out.”

Pellegrini responded to the criticism by saying he should not have to defend his selection. City, he explained, had been struggling with injuries and he was forced to prioritise in a crucial week featuring not just the Kiev game but also Sunday’s League Cup final against Liverpool.

City had written to the Football Association to complain about the scheduling of the Chelsea game, having wanted it played on Saturday.

All this turmoil plays into the hands of outsiders Kiev, who have reached the knock-out stages for the first time since they were beaten by Bayern Munich in the 1999 semi-finals.

This will be the Ukrainian champions’ first official match after a two-and-a-half-month winter break, during which they have tried to maintain sharpness in a series of friendlies.

Kiev’s key concern is the physical shape of winger Andriy Yarmolenko, who spent two months on the sidelines with a knee injury suffered in the final game of the group stage against Maccabi. They have also made a plea to their fans to behave during the game after the club had initially been ordered by UEFA to play the tie in an empty stadium following incidents in the match against Chelsea in October.

However, UEFA reduced the sanction on appeal.

Meanwhile, PSV Eindhoven will miss striker Luuk de Jong when they entertain Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 tonight.

Philip Cocu’s side won all their home games in the group stage but must take on 2014 runners-up Atletico without the suspended De Jong who has scored 17 goals this season to help lift PSV to the top of the Dutch championship.

Cocu, though, will be encouraged by the return of influential Mexican midfielder Andres Guardado following a hamstring injury.

PSV have kept clean sheets in their last three domestic league games to edge one point ahead of second-placed Ajax Amsterdam.

“I thought we were defensively a lot stronger,” Cocu told reporters after Saturday’s 2-0 home win over Heracles Almelo. “The last line and the midfield worked well together and the players put in a lot of work.

“On Wednesday we’ll need to bring the same work and intensity. We gave Heracles too much space in the second half and made the field too big.

“We can’t do that on Wednesday because Atletico are deadly on the counter attack,” said Cocu.

Second-placed Atletico slipped eight points adrift of Barcelona after Sunday’s 0-0 draw at home to Villarreal but will also take heart from a consistent rearguard that has conceded 11 goals in 25 La Liga games this season. Coach Diego Simeone said his team were still on course to achieve their targets.

“If you look at the objectives we set at the beginning of the season we are on the right track and, apart from Barcelona who are different to all the rest, it’s hard for all of us,” explained Simeone.

Atletico won 13 points out of 18 in the Champions League group stage and will hope to repeat the 3-0 win they recorded in Eindhoven in the 2008-09 Champions League when the two clubs were in the same first-round section.

The return match in Madrid is on March 15. — Reuters.

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