Manchester (United Kingdom): Manchester City will warm up for one of the biggest games in their history with a less glamourous, but no less significant, clash against Stoke on Saturday.
City are just days away from playing 10-time European champions Real Madrid in their first Champions League semi-final, with the first leg at Eastlands on Tuesday. Lifting the trophy would be a landmark moment for the club, owned and bankrolled since 2008 by the Abu Dhabi United Group. But despite their spending power and the talent in City's squad, the current domestic season has not gone according to plan.
Manuel Pellegrini's third placed side have failed to mount a Premier League title challenge in the Chilean's final campaign in charge before being replaced by Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola. With four games to go they are not yet certain of securing the top-four finish that would guarantee them Champions League action next season, making Stoke's visit to Manchester an important fixture in its' own right even so close to the Real showdown.
Kevin de Bruyne believes it might have been a different story if City, two points ahead of fifth placed Manchester United, had kept their key players fit at critical stages of the season. The Belgium international, who scored City's winning goal against Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League quarter-finals shortly after returning from a knee injury, said: "I will not say we would be in the title race without injury problems.
But I think we would have some more points because we didn't have the opportunity to rest some players. "Some players were also on the edge of being tired or being injured so it is not easy all the time. "Now almost everybody is back and it gives a different feeling in the group."
As well as the return of de Bruyne, who has scored 15 goals since signing from Wolfsburg for a club record Â£55 million ($78 million) last August, City also have captain and defensive leader Vincent Kompany and winger Raheem Sterling back from injury in a nearly fully-fit squad. David Silva may not play against Stoke as City, who are looking for a fourth win in five league games after dropping points in a 1-1 draw at struggling Newcastle in midweek, continue to rest their midfield playmaker, who has been nursing an ankle problem, for the clash against Real.
Former City manager Mark Hughes faces to his old club in charge of a Stoke side whose recent dip in form has all but ended any hopes they had for European qualification. Stoke have won just once in their last six games, leaving Hughes to start planning for next season.
The future of winger Marko Arnautovic remains unclear, with Stoke still awaiting a response from the Austrian to a second contract offer. His current deal has just a year left to run, meaning Stoke might look to cash in if they cannot agree an extension.
But Hughes is playing down the prospect of Peter Crouch leaving, despite the veteran striker claiming this week that he might look elsewhere for regular first-team football. "Sometimes you have to be fair to players if something comes around and it seems attractive to them," Hughes said.
"You have to look at that but it has to be right for the club and we never allow players to leave if we feel it weakens us and stops us having enough options to compete in the Premier League. "We're not encouraging anybody to think they can come and take Pete because although I probably haven't shown it to him in terms of appearances, he is still very much part of what we're doing here."
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