After back-to-back thrashings of Arsenal in the Carabao Cup and Premier League, and a processional victory over a Chelsea side who offered little in the way of resistance, Manchester City look just about unstoppable right now.
Pep Guardiola’s side are not only playing the most thrilling, possession-dominant football in Europe this season, they are also a tremendously ruthless winning machine, owning a commanding 16-point lead at the top of the Premier League, the League Cup already in the bag and favourites with the bookmakers to add the Champions League their haul.
Having thumped last-16 opponents Basel 4-0 away from home in the first leg, City are all but guaranteed to cruise into the quarter-finals of Europe’s premier club competition in typically comfortable fashion.
That’s why, with such an advantage over the Swiss champions heading into Wednesday night’s return fixture at the Etihad, Guardiola has license to experiment with his line-up.
Only a catastrophic capitulation, the kind of which City have shown no signs of being capable of this term, could threaten their progress, so the Catalan tactician can afford to rest a few of his trusted superstars.
Rather than seeing this simply as an opportunity to give the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Agüero and David Silva a night off, however, City can ensure the visit of Basel is not a wasted exercise by using it to nurture some of the figures many hope will play a key role in the club’s future.
Foden & Diaz
City’s Abu Dhabi-based owners, from the moment they took control of the club, came with a dual purpose: to create a first team capable of dominating domestically and compete in Europe, and to build a youth academy the envy of club’s worldwide, attracting and developing the finest young talent the game has to offer.
While City’s recent success at senior level is a direct result of their ability to spend big on the best players and coaches in world football, we are now beginning to see the fruits of the latter labour.
Several of the club’s young hopefuls are out on loan with Spanish side Girona in La Liga, but English teenager Phil Foden and Spaniard Brahim Díaz were retained ahead of the 2017/18 season, earmarked for first-team involvement after impressing with the seniors on their pre-season tour of the United States.
Both of the gifted attacking midfielders have featured three times as substitutes in the Premier League this term – Foden’s run-outs accounting for 18 total minutes of action, Díaz’s 31 – while both started in the League Cup against Leicester City back in December.
Foden also started in City’s first defeat of the season, away to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League group stage, but both could benefit from the experience of pitting themselves against Basel in a knockout tie.
Thanks to City’s 4-0 aggregate lead, they would be able to come into the team with the pressure off, but a Champions League last-16 tie offers them a platform unlike any they’ve experienced to date, giving the pair the chance to showcase their ability and demonstrate why they are so highly regarded.
Although neither Foden nor Díaz, 17 and 18 respectively, are expected to threaten Guardiola’s first-choice XI on a regular basis this season – or, indeed, next – showing the confidence to start them against Basel, allowing them to get a taste of a big Champions League night, will only aid their development.
Stones & Laporte
Indeed, the addition of Laporte, a club-record January signing from Athletic Bilbao, was seen by many as a luxury expense for the Premier League leaders, aimed to guard against complacency in the run-in.
However, at 23, Laporte is a long-term investment, just as the £47.5million signing of Stones from Everton was in the summer of 2016. The duo have clearly been identified as the men to lead the City defence in the near future, with current positional rivals Vincent Kompany and Nicolás Otamendi 30 and 31 respectively.
Both eminently comfortable on the ball and capable of initiating passing moves from deep, and with one a left-footer and the other right, Laporte and Stones have the makings of a truly exceptional central defensive partnership.
However, since the Frenchman’s mid-season move to the Etihad, they have only started together once, in a shock 1-0 FA Cup loss to third-tier Wigan Athletic.
Having yet to fully recover form and fitness following a spell on the sidelines at the back end of last year, Stones has been used sparingly of late, with that Wigan defeat his only start since late-January.
While Stones may be rusty and Laporte still adapting to his new surroundings, the Basel return leg offers the ideal opportunity for Guardiola to pair them up once again.
With the pressure off, the two young centre-backs can focus on fostering the kind of relationship that City are hopeful will form the bedrock of future successes.