Agüero and De Bruyne fire Man City past Sheffield United
Lys Moussethad a goal disallowed by VAR for offside to end a controversial weekend
Sergio Aguero of Manchester City scores his side’s first goal during the Premier League win over Sheffield United. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Manchester City 2 Sheffield United 0
Manchester City can thank Chris Kavanagh, the referee, for his unwitting help in Sergio Agüero’s opener on a day when the champions struggled yet again.
It was a moment of farce that turned the contest, seriously upset Sheffield United and which, in these VAR-troubled times, could not be reviewed as the rules do not allow for an official inadvertently blocking a pass in an action that leads to a goal.
So it was that Oliver Norwood’s intended ball to John Fleck was obstructed by Kavanagh and Kevin De Bruyne passed to Agüero, who smashed home.
Pep Guardiola had made three changes from Friday’s defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers of which Claudio Bravo for the suspended Ederson was enforced. There was a first Premier League start for the 18-year-old centre-back, Eric Garcia, and Oleksandr Zinchenko came in at left-back.
Chris Wilder’s three changes were Muhamed Besic plus Lys Mousset and Callum Robinson. The Yorkshire side, who lined up in a 3-5-2 shape, made a bright start via a corner along the left. Norwood swung in and City cleared. Two more corners followed as the Blades took the contest to the champions and, when Mousset drifted ahead of Zinchencko, he should have forced Bravo to save.
This pointed to City’s vulnerability in defence – an issue that usually evaporates when they attack. So it was that normal service appeared to be in operation when Riyad Mahrez skated forward and touched on to De Bruyne near Dean Henderson’s goal: United were grateful no finish ensued.
Yet something is missing this season from Guardiola’s team. It as if the oil that makes the machine super-slick is no longer high grade and the latest illustration came when Rodri hit a loose pass into no-man’s land. Cue the midfielder remonstrating with Kyle Walker for not moving as anticipated.
Rodri’s radar was momentarily recalibrated as he found Mahrez, who from close range dummied Enda Stevens but saw his shot blocked by John Egan.
City were dominating the ball but their rhythm remained off. De Bruyne, usually adept at choosing the correct option, tried to beat one too many defender and was dispossessed. Next, Rodri hit a diagonal ball straight to George Baldock. Instead it was United who looked the more potent, with Norwood beating De Bruyne with a neat turn and, later, Mousset racing through and beating Bravo only for VAR to rule offside in yet another marginal decision.
The way John Fleck’s excellent cross-field pass to the forward split City was a warning. Numerous more followed.
All of this had Guardiola vexed: each time the visitors came at them his side capitulated. When Norwood hit a raking 50-yard pass over the top, it left Garcia chasing Mousset and the Catalan furious with his debutant. The Frenchman shot wide of Bravo’s right post but at half-time Guardiola faced a crucial team talk.
What followed was hardly encouraging: Agüero mis-controlled, De Bruyne let fly wildly from 30 yards and Bernardo Silva ceded possession.
Garcia was not enjoying himself. A punt upfield had him scrambling to catch Mousset and Guardiola muttering to his bench. Given how disjointed his team were, they needed a break and now came the darkly comedic moment for the visitors.
Zinchenko hit City’s latest loose pass only for Kavanagh to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and so the ball fell to De Bruyne then on to Agüero and the centre-forward was as lethal as ever in striking a 10th league goal of the campaign.
Wilder complained to the fourth official, John Brooks, and his players to Kavanagh who had no option but to award the goal.
Yet Aguero’s strike did not settle City or dishearten United. Instead Chris Basham slalomed through an array of blue shirts before finally being halted and Guardiola continued to berate his backline in general and Garcia in particular.
There was visible relief, then, when De Bruyne began and finished a sweet second goal. He is becoming his side’s key player as the season ages and the way he collected the ball inside his half and found Mahrez was ominous. The Algerian swept forward and passed back to De Bruyne before his finish craftily wrong-footed Henderson.
This had Guardiola pumping the air and soothed nerves inside the Etihad Stadium. When the home fans sung the “We’ve got Guardiola” ditty there was the rare sight of the manager acknowledging them. It indicated his thanks for the support as the contest ended with Billy Sharp defeating Bravo but not his right-hand post. – Guardian