Manchester City 4 Tottenham Hotspur 2
Tottenham have not really done first halves over the past few months. In 14 previous games in all competitions, they had scored only once before the interval. But what was this? Antonio Conte’s team were 2-0 up when the half-time whistle sounded. The Etihad Stadium was in a state of uproar, Manchester City’s players departing to jeers, Pep Guardiola looking as if he might combust.
City had needed a response to their derby defeat at Manchester United, and to a sequence of two wins in five Premier League matches that had allowed Arsenal to lengthen their stride at the top of the table. Now they really needed a response. Spurs’s goals had been scored at the end of the first half by Dejan Kulusevski and Emerson Royal. They could smell a repeat of their stunning victory here last season; a tonic after a dispiriting run.
Guardiola would get his response. In a frenetic period, it was Riyad Mahrez who decided that enough was enough. It was time for somebody in sky blue to impose themselves and that somebody was him.
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The in-form winger was at the heart of City’s first two goals, converted by Julián Álvarez and, yes, Erling Haaland, whose three-game mini-drought had been a pre-match thing. And then it was Mahrez who moved the game beyond Spurs, beating the red-faced Hugo Lloris at his near post and later dinking another one over him after an error from the substitute Clément Lenglet. There were simply too many of those from Spurs during a traumatic second half.
It was branded in some quarters as a mini-slump and City’s mission had been to address it. This kind of language is surely the result of them being victims of their own successes, their sky-high standards, but it is possibly how Guardiola likes it.
Guardiola, who had a fully fit squad for the first time this season, can count Spurs as awkward opponents. Before kick-off, he could reflect on only four wins against them in the previous 10 meetings and one of those had been in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final in 2019, which did not avert an exit.
Everybody knows how Conte will shape his team. He insists that the 3-4-3 is the best way to harness his attackers, who he sees as his most important players. Nobody knows how Guardiola will set up. Here he omitted Kevin De Bruyne from the starting XI and asked Álvarez to work around Haaland. Ilkay Gündogan took up high positions in front of Rodri.
Guardiola raged at some of Spurs’s challenges with Pierre-Emile Højbjerg performing the neat trick in the 30th minute of treading on Rico Lewis three times in one action to earn a yellow card. Moments earlier Ivan Perisic had cleaned out the City teenager. Cristian Romero was booked for a late challenge on Manuel Akanji.
But Conte could feel that his players were carrying the fight. They made things difficult for City before the interval and especially Haaland. And in the dying moments, they struck not once but twice to ensure that City left the field to boos.
The first one was a personal horror show for Ederson, who accepted a back pass from Nathan Aké and then played Rodri into all kinds of trouble with a sloppy ball out. Rodrigo Bentancur was all over the City midfielder, whose attempted pass out wide was more of a tackle. It went straight to Kulusevski, who took a touch before sweeping past Ederson.
City’s heads were spinning. It was surely the only explanation for what happened almost immediately as Spurs broke and John Stones cleared to the right in front of Kane. The ball reached Kulusevski, who teased it up the inside right channel for Kane, although Rodri was there. No problem. Kane slid to win it off him before hammering a cross-shot at Ederson, who parried up into the air. There was Emerson to loop home the header on the rebound.
City had created half-chances before Spurs’ one-two punch, mainly for Haaland, whose sights were awry. Lewis extended Lloris with a deflected shot from outside the box. But Spurs had advertised their threat, with Aké making a saving header in front of Kane from a Perisic cross.
It was a wild period either side of half-time because City shook their heads clear and roared back. By the 53rd minute they were level, the crowd firmly with them now, Spurs having been gripped by uncertainty.
Mahrez provoked it. After he tricked past Perisic he had the time to cross, Gündogan rising, not getting the power on his header and Lloris stretching to push away only as far as Álvarez, who lashed home for 2-1.
The equaliser followed when Mahrez laid off to Rodri and bolted for the six-yard box, Rodri floating the ball towards him. Mahrez won the header, working it square for Haaland, who did what he does for his 22nd league goal of the season.
Spurs believed they could still hurt City on the counter. The champions are some distance from rock-solid at present. When Kane fed Kulusevski his low cross was perfect for Perisic, whose shot was somehow deflected up on to the angle of post and crossbar by Lewis with his heel.
It was a glorious madness, the structure of the game having dissolved, and City were in front when Mahrez got the better of Perisic and then Davies too easily before exposing Lloris at the near post.