Luton Town 1 Manchester City 2
Just above the goal at the Domino’s Oak Stand at Luton, above the advert for Noble Solicitors and below scoreboard, is a blue sign on which is written in white, “History is Made in Luton.” Which, frankly, at kick-off seemed an improbable, almost inexplicable, claim. As it did by the final whistle. But for around half an hour between Elijah Adebayo giving Luton the lead and Bernardo Silva equalising, it did seem Kenilworth Road might be witnessing something very significant indeed.
As it was, Manchester City, while being nowhere near their best, battled back to win and are just four points off the top. Whatever this is they are going through – blip, correction, all-out collapse – has at least been temporarily arrested, and with a relatively kind fixture list to come either side of the Club World Cup, they remain title favourites with their spring surge still to come.
Still, though, this was a hard-won victory. It may in time come to be seen as another less than impressive display in a midseason slump, but it could just as easily be the battle that once again stiffen sinews and shook off any lingering issues of hunger and desire after the completion of the quest for the treble.
Pep Guardiola had spoken of his side, and himself, perhaps benefiting from the blow to the face of the defeat at Aston Villa. There was another slap here. Luton, for their part, should take both pride and encouragement from another gutsy performance against one of the elite, but remain in the relegation zone.
It was 25 years since City had last played at Kenilworth Road, when both sides were in the third flight and a back-post header from the current coach of Sri Lanka, Andy Morrison, was cancelled out by a bullet from former Ireland international Gary Doherty. Even then the old ground felt like a throwback and on Sunday even the weather had a heritage feel: a stiff breeze ensured that the gobbets of thick rain had yielded by kick-off to a sky of chilly blue, but intermittent showers persisted through the afternoon.
The stage could not have been better set for the treble winners to slip up, particularly given Luton had held Liverpool to a draw and last week lost to Arsenal only in the final seconds of added time.
On this pitch – it is regulation size but the bulk of so many home players gives the illusion of pokiness – before these fans, Luton have been very good at thwarting more gifted and glamorous opponents. “Conference champions, you’ll never sing that,” chanted the Luton fans – although given the 115 charges against them, City are arguably closer to winning the National League than any other current Premier League side.
Erling Haaland was missing, hobbling around in a plastic boot with what Guardiola described as “bone stress reaction”, so Julian Álvarez started up front.
Losing a striker who, even if not quite at his very best this season, has contributed 14 goals in 15 league games, can never be a good thing, but allowing Álvarez to return to the forward line effectively gave City an extra midfielder, which in turn meant there was no need for either centre back to operate as an auxiliary holding midfielder in the John Stones manner.
Without City being anywhere near their fluent best, the first half had felt like an exercise in waiting for them to score. Thomas Kaminski has probably been their best player so far this season and the Belgian goalkeeper excelled again, making a couple of saves from Phil Foden and a more spectacular but probably less technically good one-handed save from Rodri. Álvarez poked a near-post effort tamely wide from a Jack Grealish cross.
It was all a bit bitty, a bit winter afternoon in Luton – which of course it was, but it’s been the great strength of Guardiola over the years that his sides can make any setting feel like a balmy evening at the Camp Nou. There were a surprising number of long-range shots, at least one of them from Kyle Walker, which is never a good sign. It was not a good day for those who would have players calculate the xG before essaying any attempt on goal.
And then, on the stroke of half-time, the unthinkable. Luton’s threat had been limited, but then Andros Townsend suddenly found a little space on the right. His ball to the back post was perfect and Adebayo rose above Rúben Días to nod the ball in from close range. Could this be it, an unexpected defeat, the first time Guardiola had ever gone five league games without a win, a first loss for Rodri since Scotland beat Spain in March?
The answer came swiftly: no, on all counts. Kaminski had already made a remarkable reflex save to tip a Rodri snapshot against the bar when Bernardo Silva bent in the equaliser just after the hour and within three minutes Grealish had scuffed a finish between Kaminski’s legs as Teden Mengi seemingly suffered a bout of cramp as he tried to deal with Álvarez’s cross.
And so history was not made in Luton, not today, but what did come into being, perhaps, was a renewed sense of resilience for the champions. – Guardian