Running off fumes after playing an extended cup final three days prior, Manchester City were able to wrestle a 1-0 win from a stubborn West Ham United at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday night.
On a night when the familiar faces of Manuel Pellegrini, Samir Nasri and Pablo Zabaleta returned to Manchester, City found some much-needed perspective that might just help them in their challenge for the Premier League title. Ben Golding takes us through the main talking points as the Blues managed to get the three points over the line.
Getting the job done (the hard way)
Whilst many would be able to excuse any lethargy on accounts of lifting the Carabao Cup less than 72 hours before kick-off, Pep Guardiola instead said he wanted to "smell" the desire from his players if they were going to continue to battle with Liverpool for the Premier League title.
90 minutes and 1 goal later, he has an answer.
With City twitter hero Sam Lee immediately reminding the Catalan of his quotes at the start of the post-match press conference, it was telling that Guardiola mentioned the disparity between the scoreline and the performance.
"When you see the result, 1-0, it could be better, of course," he said. "But how we defend the second balls... we did everything. After 120 minutes, the tension we played, we made an incredible performance."
Guardiola may have cut a frustrated figure for much of the match as he lurked on the touchline, but his closing remarks are telling. Coming through the most congested part of their fixture list, it's a minor miracle that City have managed to maintain such good results across all competitions.
A Tale of Two Seasons
When the pre-match line-ups came out at 7pm, a few fans might have been scratching their heads, wondering why Pep had started Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva.
Yes, you read that right.
Due to a combination of injuries, form and age, City's midfield maestros have been far from their brilliant best in the last few weeks, with signs showing that they might well benefit from starting from the bench than on the pitch.
There is little doubt that after their heroics from last year's legendary season, De Bruyne and Silva remain City's default starters when at their imperious best. But currently it looks like Guardiola is caught between two seasons. Just look at the Carabao Cup final on Sunday; neither player had been enjoying good form yet both were selected in tandem to secure the first silverware of the season.
However, after further below-par performances against West Ham, it has become evident that City's 2018/19 season has been indebted to a different crop of players, some of whom were on the bench (more on them on a bit).
To my mind, this can be seen one of two ways:
- Arguably our two best players are failing to produce good form. Smash that panic button and wave the white flag!
- De Bruyne and Silva are in need of a rest and we should give it to them. Their dip in form has allowed others to show that they can step up and take the game if needed.
The question (for now) becomes whether to persist with faith in De Bruyne and Silva or rotate to give them needed rest. After playing Bournemouth at the weekend, the players will get a full seven days rest for the first time since the last international break in mid-November. Will it be stick or twist
Holy Substitution, Pep!
Remember those players I just mentioned who City have been indebted to this season? Well, look no further than Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling.
With the game caught between ignition and ignominy, Pep Guardiola defied all conventional thinking and made a substitution that, if anything, actually felt pre-emptive? The Catalan has previously been criticised by his late substitutions but wasted no time in introducing Bernardo and Raheem after the 55th minute.
With Leroy Sané and Riyad Mahrez (we'll get to him) making way, City's previous lack of directness was instantly remedied as both men took up their wide positions and immediately took the game by the scruff of the neck. I'm not kidding - mere seconds after the fourth official had even taken his board down, Bernardo drove straight into the box and won the decisive penalty.
When the season comes to a surely dramatic conclusion, then both men must surely in contention for City's player of the year, if not across the whole Premier League. Much of that will depend on how the table looks after the final ten games, but if they continue to strong-arm results for the Blues, then who is to say they're not worthy?
Will the real Riyad Mahrez please stand up? (Pretty please.)
A teenage debutant at left-back. A PFA Player's Player of the Year bearing down on him on the right wing. It should have been a bloodbath. Yet again though, it was not to be for Riyad Mahrez.
City's record signing in the summer has had an undoubtedly tough start to his Manchester City career, to say the least, unable to land a regular place in the starting line-up and being heavily criticised by those who are wondering when the Blues will see a bang for their big bucks.
The Algerian is an indisputable quality, but such has been the scintillating form of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sané and Bernardo Silva, he has been unable to find his footing in a team that so often relies on metronymic efficiency to pick off its opponents.
When West Ham rolled into town in the wake of a draining cup final, it was seen as the perfect opportunity for Mahrez to finally come into his own. Add to that the fact that an unknown teenager was making his debut as Mahrez's opposing left-back, and there didn't seem much else that could favour the Algerian's odds.
It just wasn't to be though. Time and again, Mahrez's link play with Kevin de Bruyne went haywire, with him either straying offside or taking too long to attack City's favoured half-spaces.
Who knows whether his muted substitution on 55 minutes will lead to another spell on the bench, but Mahrez sure to be spending more and more time on the minds of City fans, wondering whether he has been worth the investment.
You can follow the author on Twitter: @GoldingBen
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