9:44 PM GMT
Nick MillerESPN.com writer
Manchester City will have to maintain a very delicate balance for the rest of the Premier League season. The games themselves and the results, mean absolutely nothing: they’re not going to win the title, and they’re not going to drop out of the top four, even if that actually held any significance given their ban from next season’s Champions League.
On the evidence of their 1-0 win over Leicester City on Saturday, there’s absolutely no chance they will drop below second place either, so Pep Guardiola’s side could essentially pop a pair of slippers on and cruise through the remainder of the season, for all the difference it will make. “Today we are 19 points [behind], so maybe we have a chance,” joked — yes, joked — Guardiola afterwards.
But aside from the obvious yet intangible motivations of pride and obligation to the rest of the Premier League, the purpose of City’s remaining domestic games are essentially as extended training sessions for the fixtures that actually do mean something.
Eyebrows might have been raised at Guardiola’s team selection for this one, with Wednesday’s Champions League game against Real Madrid in mind: many managers might have given some/all of Kevin De Bruyne, Fernandinho, Aymeric Laporte or Sergio Aguero the weekend off. But Guardiola knows that there’s a fine line between making sure his players are resting up and maintaining some sort of momentum, particularly since they’ve just had a 12-day break.
We’ve seen with clubs like Celtic and Rangers in the past and PSG more recently, that uncompetitive league games do not make for good Champions League preparation. In those previous cases it’s been because the aforementioned clubs are too good for the rest of the league, but the same principle applies to City this season.
This seemed like an ideal performance under the circumstances. They beat a theoretical rival by an ostensibly narrow margin but in reality with some comfort, while playing within themselves, and at the same time giving Aguero and Laporte some rest ahead of midweek. “The preparation after 12 days off was good,” Guardiola said. “We have played two good games, and it’s good to prepare for Madrid with these good opponents.” Good.
At some points in recent months it feels like City have been relying on De Bruyne for inspiration, as if they have slightly lost their confidence and need him to take control of things and make something happen. Which he has done, his goal against West Ham in midweek being a case in point, almost barging a colleague out of the way to score in a manner that seemed to scream “stop messing around, I’ll take care of this.”
There were times in this game when that sensation was clear too, as if the other 10 players were waiting for the grown-up to sort things out. It will have ultimately provided some comfort, therefore, that the goal came from a terrific run by Riyad Mahrez and expert finish from Gabriel Jesus.
For Leicester, on paper this might not seem like the most calamitous result. But their form has been patchy at best for nearly three months now: they’ve only won three of their last 11 in the league, stretching back to early December, and those victories were against West Ham (twice) and at Newcastle. They’re still 10 points ahead of fifth (and sixth) place, but there’s a growing cluster of teams with their eye on the Champions League places: they could get dragged into a scrap yet.
They looked sluggish in this game, and it might be of some concern that Brendan Rodgers admitted afterwards that his side were “feeling” their legs in the closing stages. For a team that recently had a two-week break, that seems odd.
All of that made Manchester City’s win relatively simple, but they did have moments of high fortune, and might’ve conceded two penalties. De Bruyne could easily have been penalised when the ball hit his arm from James Maddison‘s free kick, while Ederson was also lucky to avoid conceding a spot-kick after barrelling out of his goal and smashing into Kelechi Iheanacho in the second half. It might have been a genuine attempt to get the ball, but if two outfielders go into a challenge like that and one gets there just before the other, it will always be given as a foul. Why everything changes when a goalkeeper is involved is entirely baffling. Both decision went in City’s favour, VAR David Coote — who had earlier in the day overseen Chelsea’s controversial win over Tottenham — deciding neither warranted a penalty.
And then there’s their issue with penalties. Kasper Schmeichel‘s save from Aguero’s effort was the fourth penalty in a row City have missed, and the fifth out of 10 they haven’t converted this season. Those last four were all by different takers, Aguero following in the footsteps of Ilkay Gundogan, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus.
Perhaps this is just a weird variation, the sort of odd sequence of events that football throws up sometimes. But perhaps it is part of a wider problem, part of an issue with focus, or maybe even technique. It feels like something Guardiola needs to take seriously — or give the people what they want and put Ederson on spot-kick duty — but he doesn’t seem especially concerned. “We have missed four penalties in a row, but maybe we will shoot a penalty when we need it to win something. The keepers are good too, but the next one we are going to score.”
The penalties issue is one of a few ragged edges that City have this season, which feels like an obvious thing to say about a team that were expected to win the title but have just cut the deficit to top spot to a mere 19 points. They will have to smooth down those edges if they are to succeed in the Champions League, the competition that means the most to them now, if for no other reason than they can stick a middle finger up, high and proud, to UEFA.
That will be their prime motivation for the rest of the campaign, and these games will serve as mere tune-ups. In that regard, this one went perfectly.