Pep Guardiola refused to take the bait following City’s sensational 5-0 Champions League demolition of Sporting Lisbon. He’d been asked by the BT Sports reporter if his team was ‘perfect’, in the aftermath of the resounding victory in a hostile Jose Alvalade Stadium?
Whilst admitting he was very happy with the win, the City boss insisted there was room for improvement – some of his players needed to do more. Sadly, it wasn’t false modesty from Guardiola, as was amply demonstrated by a far from perfect performance in a shock 3-2 defeat to Spurs.
One of City’s most famous fans, Noel Gallagher, penned the lyrics, ‘True perfection has to be imperfect, I know that sounds crazy but it’s true...’ Reflecting on City’s third league loss in 26 games, such a perverse sentiment might act as some solace for the reigning champions as they still sit aloft the Premier League table.
Little by little City’s massive – but wholly misleading – points advantage has been whittled away from 13 to 12, to nine and now six, with the distinct probability it will be eroded to just three if, as expected, Liverpool overwhelm Leeds at Anfield on Wednesday night.
Undeniably it’s ‘game on’ for the title between City and the Scousers, but it was ever thus.
City’s ability and resilience to continue playing – and winning – matches, in the midst of the Covid19 Omicron crisis during December and January, saw them rack up maximum points, whilst other amassed games in hand.
Even with a bench comprising a wealth of Academy talent, City played on. They didn’t put in a sick note to the Premier League looking to have games called off.
Unlike others they didn’t register a plethora of ‘false positive’ results, conveniently getting inconvenient fixtures postponed.
The media handed out free passes to clubs who were abusing the, admittedly ambiguous, Covid19 criteria. Those same TV, radio, online and print media will now peddle a narrative of a miraculous Liverpool fight back in the title race.
Whilst Liverpool have been winning those matches in hand, it’s a measure of how high City have set the bar in the Premier League, that their first loss in 16 – in which they’ve collected 44 out of a possible 48 points – has provoked questions about their staying power – amidst a supposed surge of red Merseyside momentum. Well, good luck to anyone who thinks Manchester City lack the mentality and ability to string together another 12-game winning streak.
If City are to return to winning ways, they’ll need to be more cohesive in defence and more clinical up front. It’s a strange sentiment considering City have the meanest defence in the league, with just 17 goals conceded, and Riyad Mahrez’s penalty was the 100th goal scored by Guardiola’s men – in all competitions – this season.
The shock reversal, courtesy of an Antonio Conte master plan and a rare tactical miscalculation by Pep, isn’t one likely to be replicated too often, if at all, as we head towards the ‘business end’ of the season.
Conte’s counter attacking instincts were inadvertently aided and abetted by City playing a very high defensive line, with Dias, Laporte, Cancelo and Walker having a rare collective off day. The usually reliable Rodri saw several passes go astray and City, in general, needlessly yielded possession far too often.
It was the proverbial ‘bad day at the office’ and yet City still had 71% of the play and 21 shots, compared to just six from Spurs. Chances were created and goalkeeper, Lloris, pulled off one particularly world class save, but it was the ‘Number Nine’ City wanted last summer, wearing the No 10 shirt for Tottenham, who did most of the damage.
Harry Kane had a stellar night at the Etihad. In all likelihood he’d probably have had many more this season, if City had succeeded with an approach for the England captain’s services. It’s alleged, but never confirmed, that City had been prepared to pay £75m, with a further £25m in ‘add-ons’. Tottenham’s chairman, Daniel Levy, is said to have rebuffed any approach for Kane, although a transfer bid of £150m could’ve changed his mind.
Man of the Match Kane, would undoubtedly have impressed Pep, but hopefully not enough to reignite any interest in the Spurs skipper this summer. If City are pursuing a long awaited, conventional centre forward (I can’t say replacement for Sergio, because Aguero is irreplaceable in the hearts and minds of the City faithful) let’s hope the focus is on Erling Haaland – seven years Kane’s junior, a goal scoring phenomenon and, at £68m, a cheaper buy, albeit on a much bigger salary.
It’s not sour grapes – honestly – but there’s something about Harry that doesn’t sit well with arguably, the majority, of City fans. He had a great game last night, but thus far, an underwhelming season. He’ll be 29-years old in July and has shown himself to be susceptible to ankle injuries. It’s patently obvious he doesn’t fit City’s normal recruitment criteria and long may that remain the case.
Nobody foresaw the defeat after wins over Fulham, Brentford Norwich and Sporting Lisbon, with 15 goals scored and just one conceded, but as Pep has so often said – you can lose when you least expect it. Whoever would have thought Tottenham would take six points off City and Palace would plunder three this season?
There’s a train of thought that the loss will somehow give City a kick up the backside (why one would be required eludes me) and that it isn’t necessarily such a bad thing.
It wasn’t quite the same scenario when Spurs beat City 2-0 in late November 2020, sending Jose Mourinho’s team to the top of the league and City sliding down to 10th in the table, but it did spark a mesmerising 28-game unbeaten run, including 21 consecutive wins in all competitions.
If City can repeat something of that ilk and win their fourth Premier League title in five years, they won’t look back in anger on last night’s Late Show with Harry Kane.
By David Walker