LONDON (AP) - In one dugout at Etihad Stadium on Saturday will be a manager enjoying a six-match winning streak with his second-place team. In the other, a manager reeling from the biggest loss of his career and down in fifth place.
Few at the start of the English Premier League would have predicted it would be Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino with the edge over struggling Manchester City counterpart Pep Guardiola.
But the top of the standings is confounding expectations in the second half of the season. City hosts Tottenham with Guardiola’s side trailing the second-place London club by three points and leader Chelsea by 10 points.
Having already ruled City out of the title race, Guardiola is now in a scrap just to secure Champions League qualification by finishing in the top four as he endures a difficult first season in English soccer.
It was against Tottenham in early October when Guardiola experienced his first setback at City, with Pochettino ending the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach’s winning league start. Last weekend, he was humbled by a 4-0 loss at Everton, a career low for the Champions League-winning coach.
Has Guardiola lost the Midas touch?
“The coach has to adapt with the players, the players have to adapt with the coach,” Eric Abidal, who played under Guardiola at Barcelona, told The Associated Press on Thursday. “Tactically, and the methodology of Pep Guardiola is methodology from Barcelona … he needs time. They will win trophies.
“I spoke with some players from (City), tactically they learn a lot,” Adibal added at a Barcelona event on Thursday in Singapore. “But when you have a good coach and good players, a lot of teams want to beat you. So it’s not easy, every weekend, and we know the intensity of English football.”
City racked up six successive wins in the league before losing 2-0 at Tottenham on Oct. 2. Since then City has dropped 18 points, winning seven of its 14 games as the shortcomings of the brittle defense and shaky goalkeeper Claudio Bravo has been exposed.
City’s attacking options have been reinforced with Gabriel Jesus completing his move from Palmeiras in time to feature against Tottenham.
“Gabriel is a technically gifted player who was chased by some of Europe’s biggest clubs and we are delighted he decided to join City,” director of football Txiki Begiristain said. “He has the potential to become one of the best attacking players in the game.”
And for the 19-year-old Jesus, Guardiola played a big part in deciding his next destination.
“He was the only manager who called me so I was very pleased,” Jesus said. “One thing I’ve noticed is that, like me, he is mad about football. He lives football 24 hours a day. I’m like that, too.
“When I’m not playing, I’m watching, or playing a video game, doing something linked to football. This is very important, that I’m the same as him, and I hope to learn.”
Tottenham could move six points clear of City by completing the double over Guardiola’s side.
And for Pochettino it’s not just about securing a second successive season in the Champions League but delivering the north London club’s first domestic title since 1961.
“We have to try to show that we can be real contenders for the Premier League, that’s the real challenge,” Pochettino said. “It’s more important that we can show ourselves, rather than show Manchester City.
“We need to show ourselves we are capable of dealing with that pressure, and to try to win games to achieve big things.”
Tottenham has received more positive news on defender Jan Vertonghen’s ankle injury. After initial fears the center back could be out for three months, Tottenham now expects him back in six weeks.
Here are some other talking points around the Premier League:
West Ham travels to Southampton on Saturday with the fate of star player Dimitri Payet still uncertain after the France midfielder told the club more than a week ago he wants to leave to rejoin Marseille.
Payet would not play against Crystal Palace last weekend, according to manager Slaven Bilic.
“Is his departure inevitable? I don’t know,” Bilic said. “We are not going to sell our best players on the cheap just because someone wants to sign them or even because they want to go home.
“I left it with the chairman and I’m sure he’s going to do the best thing. The ball is in Marseille’s court. They are the ones who expressed interest. Now they should act … like everybody, he has his price.”
AT THE BOTTOM
Two of the teams in the relegation zone have tricky trips to top-four opposition.
Paul Clement takes Swansea to third-place Liverpool on Saturday for a daunting second league game in charge of the bottom-place team.
“It does not look hopeless,” the former Bayern Munich assistant coach said. “We are one point behind the team outside the relegation zone and not far behind the teams just above that as well.”
Sunderland, which is above Swansea on goal difference, is at West Bromwich Albion. Hull is a point further up the standings going into Sunday’s game at leader Chelsea.
This story has been corrected to fix name of Manchester City goalie to Claudio Bravo instead of Costa Bravo
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