Manchester City did what it needed to. With Liverpool away at the Club World Cup, it had to win to keep at least some sort of pressure on the league leader and did so with a 3–1 win. It wasn’t always entirely convincing and City remains third in the table, but it looked a definitively better side than Leicester City and had at least closed the gap to Liverpool to 11 points, albeit having played a game more.
For Leicester this was an all too familiar feeling. This was its fourth game away to a side that finished in the top six of the Premier League last season from which it has taken only one point. Brendan Rodgers’s side remains well-placed to finish in the top four, which would still represent a considerable achievement, but if it does it will be by its capacity to keep beating those sides in the middle of the table and below. That is a skill in itself and not to be underestimated, but it does not constitute a meaningful title challenge.
All season there has been a sense that Manchester City has not quite been pressing with the same precision or intensity as in previous campaigns under Pep Guardiola, something that has left it extremely vulnerable to the counter-attack. Only three sides had conceded a higher proportion of goals in the counter in the Premier League this season. Equally, no side in the Premier League had scored more than Leicester’s six goals with rapid counters this season. In that sense, the opening goal after 22 minutes was expected, but it could hardly have been more against the run of play.
The home side, with Ilkay Gundogan preferred at the back of midfield to Rodri, dominated the opening quarter almost entirely. Kevin De Buyne hit the post and Kasper Schmeichel made a remarkable reflex save from Gabriel Jesus when Ben Chilwell, gathering possession, laid a pass down the line for Harvey Barnes. With the outside of his boot, the 22-year-old arced an assist behind the City back line, Jamie Vardy ran on and, despite a slightly heavy second touch, dinked the ball over Ederson for his 17th goal of the season.
At that point, Guardiola was facing the prospect of losing two home league games in a row for the first time in his career. His teams have an unfortunate habit of conceding goals in clusters and Vardy had a glorious chance to add a second, firing over after the ball had run just too wide after held gone by Nicolas Otamendi. But once that opportunity had gone, City rapidly reasserted itself. Riyad Mahrez leveled with a deflected shot after a fine cross-field pass from Benjamin Mendy, and then, just before half-time, Ricardo Pereira trod on Raheem Sterling’s foot to concede a penalty that Ilkay Gundogan converted.
The pattern continued into the second half. City had the better of the game. It kept creating chances. Schmeichel made a remarkable save to fist away a Mahrez drive. Sterling kept creating openings and cutting the ball back into dangerous areas without ever finding the expected City player. De Bruyne, surging through midfield, was a perpetual threat. And yet Leicester hung on and hung on and every now and again offered just a flicker of danger in the counter. Guardiola is always animated in the technical area but here he was particularly demonstrative as though he realized dropping points here, which would have meant even at this stage it was unable to match last season’s tally of 98 points, would have ended once and for all City’s hopes of retaining its title.
The third goal, though, did eventually arrived after 69 minutes, De Bruyne charging through the inside-right channel and crossing low for Gabriel Jesus to turn in. De Bruyne’s recent form has been extraordinary; here he played less on the right of a midfield three than almost as a second striker, almost occupying two positions such was his energy. There is an anger about him at the moment, as though he feels he has a point to prove, although what that might be and to whom he is proving it is anybody’s guess. Whatever the cause, his form is one of the few very clear positives for City this season and perhaps the major reason it’s still just about possible to imagine City reeling Liverpool in.
That would still take something truly extraordinary, both from City and from Liverpool. But at least City, after its recent stutter, beat the masters of counter-attacking and kept the title race alive.