Pep Guardiola took hold of the rudder and steered his team’s title bid back onto the rails at the Empire Stadium (is it still called that?) last night where I trial for next season’s regular Saturday 7.45 became a trial or torture for the division’s in-form team, Tottenham Hotspur.
Coming off the back of an exhaustive series of challenges in both the Champions League and the Premier League even though the opposition involved are placed firmly behind City, probably the last fixture the Blues would have wanted was a trip to Wembley to face a Tottenham Hotspur side that has remained unbeaten since they appeared and were dismantled at the Etihad.
With goal thief, Kane, restored to their side following injury it was probably a relief to City that they did not have to face the Kane-less Spurs who, in my opinion, looked a more fluid outfit. That said with Fernandinho missing from the anchor role in midfield as he serves the first of a two-match ban for accumulated yellow cards, a number of challenges faced Guardiola and his thought processes for this fixture.
With Otamendi having restored his penchant for the kind of defending prevalent in his game last season, it was decided to allow a day on the bench as Pep brought in Laporte to play alongside Kompany at the heart of the defence. Gundogan, criticised heavily in these pages of late took over the Fernandinho reins. Aguero didn’t feature at all as Sane, de Jesus and Sterling took up the forward berths, leaving Silva and De Bruyne in the creative department and Walker and Delph on the corners.
And what ensued was to be a bit of a ding-dong match with City focused on getting their title bid back in hand. First up a chance carved out for Sane by Sterling’s pace down the right. Sane’s volley swerved onto the post and as is usual with City, it rebounded straight out, rather than in-off.
Alli almost created something at the other end but rather than stay on his feet took the Poch option of hitting the ground and the chance went away.
At the other end sighters were placed by Sterling, De Bruyne and Sane again as the match took on a familiar look with City playing excellent football in and around Tottenham before, on 22 minutes, an over-the-top pass from Kompany released de Jesus who sprang the high offside trap, outpaced Sanchez and drilled it into the bottom corner. The young Brazilian looks to be hitting top form as the curtain is about to go up to reveal this season’s Premier League Champions. City have been in front in two matches recently and offered the other side an escape clause. Would it be the same today?
As we know in recent matches City have been starved of positive decisions by England’s ailing referees. We have seen a host of penalties not given and two or three important goals disallowed for dodgy offsides. So, it was probably the due date for City to get a bit of luck and it came just 3 minutes after the opener when Sterling’s pace, once again, tore a hole in the Spurs backline leaving, once again, Sanchez as the only man in pursuit. Lloris hared off his line and felled Sterling an inch outside the box, but the momentum took the incident to inside the box and the referee pointed to the spot, producing a yellow card for Lloris.
Another player in need of a confidence shot, Gundogan, stood up to take the penalty and scored with a sound un-saveable shot which kissed the inside of the post and went in. So, surely this was it. City couldn’t let another 2-goal lead vanish….could they?
The rest of the half saw City dominate with efforts going close from Sane and Silva, whereas Ederson was pretty much untroubled by anything Spurs could offer. The biggest threat seemed to be coming from Lamela but he, too, must have been reading the Poch Book of Diving as he tried to blatantly milk a penalty out of Kompany who quite simply didn’t touch him.
But, it looked like the answer to the question might be “yes” or at least “maybe” when, close to half-time, Spurs squeezed the ball into the City box and Eriksen beat Laporte to the ball and toe-poked it past Ederson, giving his team a toe-hold in the match.
This was now to be a test of City’s character. If the shades of doubt were to nibble into their minds, this was going to be the time, especially with Lamela making a nuisance of himself. City, however, eased their way to halftime with the lead still intact.
The early part of the second half was not notable for an abundance of action. Spurs couldn’t get into a rhythm and City didn’t experience any defensive scares. The replacements started to arrive around the hour mark as Lamela was replaced by Son, who for me is Spurs most attacking threat as City eased off Sane for Otamendi and finally de Jesus for Bernardo.
In among all the City finally got the game put to bed. A corner from De Bruyne was flicked on by David Silva and Laporte sent in a fierce shot which was too hot for Lloris to handle. No sooner had it left his stung palms, it was slammed in by Sterling to make it 3-1 City.
This seemed to spark a bit of life into Spurs and finally Eriksen and Moura gave Ederson something to do. The Brazilan goaltender got back on track with making saves enabling City to slip off the Wembley turf and back into the sanctity of a sixteen-point lead at the head of the table, at least until the Stretfords present themselves against the relegation fodder formerly known as West Bromwich Albion today, where an unlikely defeat for United, would hand the title to City.
Beating Tottenham was an absolute must for City. Had they not been successful, by Wednesday night the gap at the top could have been narrowed to seven points if the Stretfords were to have beaten West Brom and Bournemouth. As it stands City once again stand proud, with a gap of sixteen.
So, unless there is a Baggies miracle at the theatre of nightmares today, all eyes will be on the Etihad next Saturday, where a win against a revitalised Swansea City will finally see City win the title for the third time in six seasons. With a week to prepare, which is something a bit new for Guardiola, I, like all of you, will be looking forward to a celebration and imbibing the bottle of Moet that I should have been drinking last weekend.
A lot of demons were exorcised at Wembley in a win that enabled some players to regroup, notably Sterling, Gundogan, Ederson and de Jesus. I suspect that this will now be the springboard we need to get ourselves over the line and take the title. No doubt Swansea will try to prevent City scoring with numbers behind the ball. City may need to be patient, but must not get complacent against a team struggling near the foot of the table, but whose five-point advantage over Southampton, might now see them safe from relegation.