Resurgent Man City avert crisis but must do more in Liverpool title clash
Posted On March 22, 2019
Pep Guardiola’s side were much improved as they bounced back from consecutive defeats at Southampton, but they must do more ahead of Thursday’s clash
The reports of Manchester City’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Sure, Pep Guardiola’s side were not quite at their brilliant best as they beat Southampton, but they showed more than enough to prove that there is plenty of life in them yet.
Whether they have enough to win the Premier League title this season is another matter, however, and depends as much on Liverpool as it does City.
And with the two sides set to face each other on Thursday night in what could be a pivotal match in the season, we are soon to learn exactly how well City have recovered from their two bruising defeats over Christmas.
Compared to the performances against Crystal Palace and Leicester City, this was much, much better. In those defeats City looked starved of creativity in attack (by their high standards, anyway) and brittle at the back.
In the absence of David Silva and Fernandinho, City could not carve open their determined opponents and resorted to lumping crosses into the box, to no avail. They were counter-attacked, and without their Brazilian enforcer there was nobody to do anything about it.
Those defeats left them 10 points off Liverpool (albeit with a game in hand) and with questions to answer heading into Sunday’s game at St Mary’s. Those questions were, by and large, answered.
It was no coincidence that they looked so much better with both Silva and Fernandinho restored to the line-up. The passing link-ups were back in effect and the dirty work was, usually, taken care of.
City’s biggest concern on the day was that they missed a hatful of chances and flirted with another poor result. Silva finished off a trademark City move to open the scoring – Danilo and Bernardo Silva combined to get City to the byline, from where the ball was pulled back into the Spaniard’s path. He made no mistake this time, having already produced a superb save from Alex McCarthy in the opening stages.
Riyad Mahrez and Sergio Aguero then missed gilt-edged chances to extend the lead and give the visitors some much-needed breathing space. And then Southampton, who had in fact gone close to opening the scoring before Silva did the honours, drew level.
City were asking for this one. Not only had they failed to put their chances away but they then invited pressure in their own third. Not usually a problem for them (and certainly not for the ice-cool Ederson) but Oleksandr Zinchenko got himself in a terrible position, asked for the ball to be played to Fernandinho, received it himself and then lost it. Southampton sprung free and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg leathered the ball into the net.
For all City’s slick attacking play, they were now back at square one. Having given up leads in their last two games, things were suddenly looking dicey. The performance was better, the passing was slicker and the energy was there, but was there enough belief to overcome another set-back?
Zinchenko got himself in another mess and almost gave away a penalty (although the referee was right not to give one) and City appeared to be on the ropes. No wonder Guardiola wants Ben Chilwell.
And then the clouds lifted. A stroke of luck in their favour, this time, as Raheem Sterling found himself with the ball near the byline (not the product of an incisive passing move, this time) and fired in a cross that deflected into the net.
And then the killer blow. Zinchenko swung in another cross – one of City’s better efforts from the past three games – and found Aguero, who headed in a firm effort. The Ukrainian left-back celebrated gleefully on his own before his team-mates realised what it meant to him to make such a decisive contribution.
That was that, really. The biggest story of the second half was City’s inability to take their chances. Sterling tested McCarthy, Aguero hit the crossbar and Mahrez again should’ve done better when through one-on-one.
Had Southampton had any fight left in them it could have made for a nervy finale, but they didn’t.
Liverpool do, though. City could be confident of continuing this revival if they were playing anybody else in the Premier League next Thursday, but it is Jurgen Klopp’s side that come to the Etihad Stadium.
City have plenty of weapons to win the match, of course, and plenty will argue that so they should, given the level of investment and the quality of the coaching.
But there are still signs of frailty there, where Liverpool seemingly have none.
There were times on Sunday when City could count themselves lucky that their opponents could not keep their heads in front of goal, not least when Charlie Austin broke clean through the middle early on. Any of the Reds’s forwards will surely finish better than Austin did.
And then there are City’s own attacking players. If they show this level of profligacy again they could be made to pay, and that payment could well be a 10-point gap to the leaders.
Amid City’s romp last season Guardiola told his players, “if you want to be a top, top team, you need to learn to score the f***ing goals.” By that definition they were not a top, top team on Sunday.
But given one of their problems heading into this game was that they hadn’t even been creating the f***ing chances, it would be foolish to think City are about to collapse altogether.
They showed here that they are a far, far better side than recent performances suggested, and with the promise of Kevin De Bruyne to return.
Liverpool are in a commanding position, and could be in an even better one on Thursday night, but City will not give up.