Manchester City see off United to retake top spot from Liverpool
Pep Guardiola’s team prove at Old Trafford why they’re Manchester’s dominant force
Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva celebrates his goal at Old Trafford. Photograph: Reuters
Every season, there is always one decisive game when the team who are going to win the Premier League knows it is going to be their year. One game when everything turns in their favour, when all the hard work comes together and the supporters can start thinking it is going to be a season to cherish.
For Manchester City, was this that night? It certainly felt that way, even if they still have to negotiate a tricky assignment at Burnley on Sunday before closing their season with a home game against Leicester and a trip to Brighton. City have made it 11 league wins in a row. If they can extend that sequence to 14 there will be nothing Liverpool, in second place, can do about it.
Pep Guardiola will emphasise there is still the potential for another late twist. All the same, it was difficult to leave Old Trafford without thinking City had struck a decisive blow in the title race courtesy of the second-half goals from Bernardo Silva and the substitute Leroy Sané.
They had won at Old Trafford for the sixth time in eight visits. It was United’s seventh defeat in their past nine games and means no other away side in the Premier League era can match City’s haul of seven victories at this stadium.
Ultimately, though, the only statistic that really mattered was that the reigning champions had moved a point clear at the top of the table. Liverpool had been displaced and that, for United, can be the only consolation after another demonstration of how far they have fallen behind the elite.
All of which made it an unusual night bearing in mind the politics, divisions and sporting enmity that exists, at varying levels, between the three clubs. Were there United fans feeling compromised and secretly rooting for City in preference to helping Liverpool win their first championship for 29 years? The equivalent, say, of a fat lip rather than a black eye and a blow to the solar plexus?
The answer, undeniably, is yes on both counts. Yet the noise inside Old Trafford was of a crowd who wanted to put one over their neighbours and let the rest take care of itself. The players in red showed they did understand what it meant to pull on United’s colours, contrary to the impression given by Sunday’s 4-0 defeat at Everton, and Ole Gunnar Solksjær is entitled to think there was a positive reaction from a new-look team operating with an experimental 3-4-3 system.
Solskjær had left out, among others, Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic and perhaps that had something to do with the surge in energy. Yes, United’s wing-back system, meant the club that once had a midfield quartet of David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs were now reliant on Ashley Young, Andreas Pereira, Fred and Luke Shaw. Yet the questions this week have been about United’s attitude, rather than the imbalance in talent, whereas nobody could have watched this game and concluded one team wanted to win more than the other.
It made for a tense, absorbing match, not least because there was always the sense, particularly in the first half, that City would start looking more like themselves. Early on, they found it difficult to build up their usual momentum. Raheem Sterling looked dangerous on the left, as did Bernardo Silva on the other side, and David de Gea had to save his team on a couple of occasions. That apart, however, there were only sporadic occasions throughout the opening 45 minutes to worry all the Liverpool supporters who were watching on television.
Solskjær’s players had set off as though played affronted by the statistic that in 15 of their previous 17 Premier League matches the opposition had run further. More than that, they showed the ambition to get behind City’s defence, playing on the counterattack with Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford operating either side of Jesse Lingard. Rashford, in particular, looked lively.
City also had to make do with losing Fernandinho early in the second half, the Brazilian jarring his knee as he blocked a shot from Pogba inside the penalty area.
Sané replaced him, which was an adventurous substitution, meaning a tactical switch that involved Sterling swapping sides, Silva taking a more central role and Ilkay Gündogan filling in for Fernandinho as the team’s holding midfielder. Guardiola wanted a new approach. Sané slotted in seamlessly and, within three minutes, City had their goal.
Gündogan played the decisive pass. Silva had drifted right again and this time he stepped inside Shaw, who had stood off his opponent, to let fly with his left foot. The shot was low and powerful and aimed for the near corner. De Gea was slow to go down and the little Portuguese was on his victory run, heading for the corner of Old Trafford that accommodates the away supporters.
Out of defiance, the Stretford End burst into a song about the 20 times they have seen their team win the title.
Yet City were now in control. Sergio Agüero skimmed the post with one shot and Sané’s goal was a classic breakaway culminating in a left-foot shot that beat De Gea, badly out of form, at his near post.