It might not have included the goals of Wednesday night or the extraordinary VAR-induced finale, but in its own way Man City's league encounter with Tottenham was dramatic enough.
It might not have included the goals of Wednesday night or the extraordinary VAR-induced finale, but in its own way the league re-rerun of the engrossing Manchester City v Tottenham franchise was dramatic enough. It may, as Wednesday did, have ended in victory for City by a one-goal margin, but the emotions could hardly have been more different. Here City celebrated the win given it by Phil Foden’s early goal and the three points that placed it one point above Liverpool at the top of the table with three games to go – albeit that Jurgen Klopp’s side will cut the gap to two again if it beats Cardiff City on Sunday.
From City’s point of view, this was job done. For a month or so its fixture list has contained two obviously tricky games: this one and the derby away at Manchester United on Wednesday. Scaling the first of the obstacles, though, came at a cost, with Kevin De Bruyne succumbing in the first half to what appeared to be a problem with his left knee.
The title race had seemed to be a battle between a Liverpool that had to scrap for every result and City that motored relentlessly on. That, though, has gone. This was as nervous and unconvincing a performance as City has produced in the league for at least two seasons. The pressure, intensified perhaps in the wake of Wednesday’s Champions League exit and the end of the dreams of a quadruple, is telling at last.
In terms of the title race, this was a game of more significance to City than to Spurs, and that was reflected in the lineups selected. Phil Foden came in for David Silva, but that was the only change Guardiola made to his front six from Wednesday. Such issues are never precise, a matter of educated guesswork more than anything else, but that was an obvious risk with the Manchester derby coming up on Wednesday. It paid off in terms of the result, but at some cost, depending just how serious De Bruyne’s injury is.
One of Tottenham’s strengths is usually its capacity to switch between back four and back three, but it was basic errors in that system that led to the opening City goal after five minutes. Sergio Aguero and Foden got between the three central defenders, the Argentinian finding space to head back across goal for the 18 year old to nod in his first Premier League goal.
At that point, it seemed that the emotional fall-out from Wednesday’s drama would result in a re-focused City dismantling a spent Tottenham. But that wasn’t how it played out. City controlled possession, but it was Tottenham that created the better chances, five of them before half time, all essentially following the pattern of one of the forwards getting in behind a very high line. With John Stones returning for Vincent Kompany, City too seemed to struggle with the spaces between its defenders.
Guardiola used the injury to De Bruyne to try to rectify that issue, bringing on Fernandinho and dropping him alongside Ilkay Gundogan to the shape effectively became a 4-2-3-1 with a two-man shield in front of the central defenders. Yet still the opportunities fell Tottenham’s way and, on another day, Kyle Walker would have been penalized for a handball as he intercepted Dele Alli’s attempt to turn back inside him.
In that sense, this was a very different game from Wednesday. Tottenham rode its luck then but was a little unfortunate here. Perhaps by this stage of the season nothing much matters beyond the result, but there were plenty of causes of concern for City. Again and again long straight balls caught out the City defense.
There was a general fraughtness about City and about the Etihad. The serenity of much of its play under Guardiola was gone, with the crowd howling in anxiety as it tried to play out from the back. There had been until Wednesday a sense of City as an implacable machine, remorseless passing every opponent into submission. That has gone; the mechanism is becoming gummed.
For Tottenham, this was a set back in the battle for Champions League qualification, although not a huge one and not one that was in any sense unexpected. With three of its four remaining games at home, it can still be confident.
For City, there is United to come, and then Burnley, Leicester and Brighton, games that will come to see more bedevilled by terrors as the line approaches. Win all four, though, and the title will remain at the Etihad.