Six Manchester City players have three games to change Pep Guardiola’s mind about their futures.
One way of looking at the final three games of the season for the Citizens is to write them off.
City cannot be caught at the top of the Premier League, and the fixtures against Newcastle, Brighton and Everton are likely to be used to rotate and keep Pep Guardiola’s first-choice XI as fresh as possible ahead of the Champions League final at the end of the month.
After playing three times a week for eight months, Guardiola is surely pleased to have that luxury as he plots how to beat Chelsea in the final of the one competition that has eluded City so far.
Up to now, when Guardiola has given his fringe players a chance, they haven’t exactly taken it. There have been encouraging performances from Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling and Joao Cancelo, but not to the standard of the players currently ahead of them in the running to start the Champions League final.
That is why, for those three players – as well as centre-back Aymeric Laporte – the next three games are crucial for showing Guardiola they deserve to start what is arguably City’s biggest ever game.
Earlier in the season, after being benched for John Stones for a long period, Laporte hinted at reviewing his City future at the end of the season if his playing time didn’t increase.
Speaking ahead of the league win at Burnley in February, Laporte said: “At the moment I’m here, I’ll play today, we’ll see what happens. I’m happy at Manchester City, I always thought I’d spend many years here. I hope that will happen.
“I will see what happens between now and the end of the season but for now I’m happy.”
Laporte is likely to play in the last three games as John Stones and Ruben Dias are managed ahead of the final. If he wants to play against Chelsea, and show Guardiola he is worthy of being first choice, he must earn in in the next fortnight. Given his comments at Burnley, it might also have a bearing on what he wants for next season.
Guardiola has preferred a front three of Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden and one of Kevin De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva, meaning Jesus and Sterling have had to wait patiently for their turn.
Sterling was superb against Spurs in the Carabao Cup final, while Jesus showed how dangerous he can be when setting up City’s goal vs Chelsea last time out before winning a penalty. More of the same is needed if they want to secure playing time in the final.
It seems Guardiola will target a high profile striker this summer to replace Sergio Aguero. Jesus will be looking to show he still has a key role to play.
And for Cancelo, who was benched for Aleks Zinchenko in the semi-final second leg and seems to have been demoted to second choice on both sides of defence, he must show Guardiola the form he displayed at the start of the year.
Cancelo’s case is a curious one, with City having five players capable of playing at full-back, including Laporte and Nathan Ake.
This has clearly been his best season at City, although he might end it the same way he started it – needing to prove himself on the right and left. He can use the next three games to remind Guardiola of his quality.
Likewise, Benjamin Mendy needs some big performances. He is surely set for a watching role in the final, and might even be on his way out of the club this summer.
After the league title was secured, he tweeted that his trophy to appearance ratio was getting better. At three league titles at an average of one per 16 appearances, it proves how tricky games have been for the Frenchman.
Whether by injury or form, Mendy probably shouldn’t be shouting about not playing too often (although he has a World Cup winner’s medal for 40 minute’s work, so who are we to argue with that!)
If Mendy departed this summer, it would barely disrupt the balance of the squad, and it might make sense to bring in more cover for Kyle Walker along with the wealth of left-back options. He effectively has three games to save his City career.
And so, to a degree, does Nathan Ake.
Injury has disrupted his first season, and he’s looked solid when called upon. However, he’s firmly fourth-choice at centre-back and that is unlikely to change next season.
Some game-time in the next three games would benefit him and give the Dutchman the opportunity to show where he fits into this squad.
Ake’s social media activity referred to his second personal Premier League title, although the first was earned through 17 minutes for Chelsea in 2014/15, and he’s only played nine league games this term. Again, two titles for ten outings is a great record, but surely a player of his quality wants and needs to play a bigger role.
Some reports of a summer transfer have cast doubt over his future, and while not in as perilous a position as Mendy, a strong end to the season couldn’t hurt.
Whoever plays, and whoever impresses, the next three games will absolutely not be dead rubbers before the Champions League final.