It has been one of the most talked-about fixtures in the Premier League schedule in the past month, and Manchester City will finally cash in their game in hand against Aston Villa at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday in their bid to retain the inside track for the Premier League title.
City's run to the League Cup title and their march to the semi-finals of the FA Cup caused a constant re-working of their schedule, with their match versus the Villans originally scheduled for March 8 pushed back until now. As City (25-5-6), front-running Liverpool and Chelsea all have jockeyed for the league lead, City's trump card of having this match in hand has progressively loomed larger to its current point of being a key component to their title hopes.
If Manuel Pellegrini's side win this match and their finale at home Sunday versus West Ham, City would win their second title in three seasons after Liverpool's shocking collapse at Crystal Palace cost them two points in Monday's pulsating 3-3 draw. City even have a margin of error now since they still maintain a significant goal difference advantage over the Reds.
"We definitely expect to win it - as a team at the top you always expect to win," said midfielder Yaya Toure, who was pipped by Liverpool's Luis Suarez for the Football Writers Association's player of the year award on Monday. "We have worked so hard this year and if we don't win, it would be a massive disappointment for us, for the fans and the club as well."
Though the Ivorian was subbed off after 66 minutes Sunday, he contributed to City's 3-2 win at Everton with an assist for Sergio Aguero's match-tying goal in the first half. Toure, whose 19 goals lead all midfielders in England, may have to turn scorer once more since Aguero left the match in the 28th minute due to a groin injury.
While Aguero later tweeted he was OK, Pellegrini ruled him out of this match Tuesday with the hopes the Argentine striker could be fit in time for Sunday's match.
''He couldn't recover 100 percent from his groin problem, so he is not in the squad list,'' the manager said. ''Maybe he can have some chances, we will see the way he improves during the week.''
Villa (10-8-18) confirmed their top-flight status for next season, remaining one of only seven clubs to be in the Premier League every season since its inception with a 3-1 victory over Hull City that ended a six-match winless spell (0-1-5). Andreas Weimann had a late first-half brace, scoring goals seven minutes apart, as the Villans had their first multigoal game since a 4-1 victory over Norwich City on March 2.
"His two goals were probably long overdue when you look at his work ethic," manager Paul Lambert told Villa's official website about the 22-year-old Austrian striker. "Wherever you play Andi, you seem to get the same consistency level. The thing is that Andi has stepped out of the academy a few years ago. He will get better."
City are all too familiar with Weimann, who bagged the match-winner in the reverse fixture on Sept. 28 in the Midlands by latching onto a Route One ball by goalkeeper Brad Guzan, streaking between two defenders and poking the ball past an on-rushing Joe Hart from just above the top of the penalty area.
Though Villa have claimed 17 of their 38 points on the road, they have dropped four straight on the bounce there by a combined 10-2 margin and have only two draws in their last seven road matches. Additionally, they have been outscored 19-2 in losing their last six visits to the blue part of Manchester, including a 5-0 hammering in last season's corresponding fixture as Aguero and Carlos Tevez each scored twice.