Kevin De Bruyne believes Manchester City are reaping the benefits of having a squad close to full fitness as they prepare to welcome Stoke City to the Etihad Stadium.
City are unbeaten in their four previous Premier League matches this month, with Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw at struggling Newcastle United halting a three-match winning streak.
This upturn for Manuel Pellegrini’s men has coincided with De Bruyne’s return from knee ligament damage, sustained during January’s League Cup semi-final victory over Everton.
Although City went on to collect the trophy after a Wembley penalty shoot-out triumph over Liverpool, a miserly seven points from as many Premier League matches missed by the Belgium midfielder all but ended their title hopes.
Samir Nasri has also ended a lengthy spell on the sidelines to fine affect, while calf injury plagued captain Vincent Kompany made his latest comeback at St James’ Park.
It means Pellegrini can shuffle his pack with an eye on next week’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Real Madrid – a luxury De Bruyne points out his boss has not always been afforded this term.
“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,” the 24-year-old told City’s official website.
“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.”
Nasri, who does not feature in City’s Champions League squad as a result of undergoing major thigh surgery, is expected to come back into the reckoning after suffering a muscular tweak during last weekend’s 3-0 win at Chelsea.
David Silva continues to manage ankle pain and could rest up for Madrid’s visit to Manchester, along with first-choice full-backs Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy (both back), although Pellegrini will be wary of ceding ground to Arsenal and Manchester United in the battle for a top-four spot.
Mark Hughes’ Stoke won 1-0 at the Etihad last season and completed a dominant 2-0 home victory over their opponents earlier this season, although such prime form has deserted them of late.
A run of one win in six Premier League games has been compounded by shipping four goals against Liverpool and Tottenham in their past two outings – the latter match serving as a less-than-ideal debut for veteran goalkeeper Shay Given.
“They [Spurs] were the best side we’ve played this season. They certainly deserved to win the game on the night,” said Hughes, who wants his side to tighten up defensively.
“Sometimes we can be a little bit too open and good teams, at the top of their form like Spurs were, are capable of picking you off.
“Obviously we are concerned by our previous couple of games. We know that this weekend will be a huge challenge for us.”
Given is set to continue in goal, with Jack Butland (ankle) out for the season, while his Ireland colleague Jon Walters is targeting next weekend’s match against Sunderland for his comeback from routine knee surgery.
Hughes will be without Xherdan Shaqiri after the Switzerland star was substituted at half-time with a tight hamstring against Tottenham, while Glen Johnson and Marc Wilson (both knee) remain absent alongside suspended fellow defender Erik Pieters.
Key Opta stats
– Stoke won this fixture last season having lost their previous six Premier League trips to the Etihad Stadium without scoring a goal.
– Sergio Aguero has scored five goals in five Premier League appearances against Stoke, while 14 in his past 13 games have helped him to reach 100 league goals for City.
– Manchester City have lost five of their 17 Premier League home matches this season, including three of the last five. They lost five of 86 home games before the current campaign.
– Stoke have gone eight Premier League away matches without a clean sheet.
– Former Manchester City goalkeeper Given has conceded 10 goals in his past two Premier League appearances following a 4-0 reverse against Tottenham on his Stoke debut.