Ken Early: City’s poor penalty record hands Liverpool title race lifeline

West Ham’s Fabianski is the right man in the right place at the right time

When Kevin de Bruyne took personal charge of the title race last Wednesday by scoring four goals at Molineaux, he seemed to have closed off some of the more outlandish possibilities as we headed towards the last week of the season. It was now clear that City would win the league, and the live question was whether Liverpool could redeem a season that had recently promised an unprecedented quadruple by at least winning some more cups.

On Saturday Liverpool took some of the pressure off themselves ahead of the Champions League final against Real Madrid by winning the FA Cup on penalties against Chelsea. In seven games against Chelsea and Manchester City Jurgen Klopp's team have six draws, with just the 3-2 Cup semi-final win against City as a 90-minute victory.

If they fail to win the league, they’ll have to reflect on their inability to force the issue against their closest rivals – and Tottenham, with whom they shared another two draws – as the biggest reason why.

On Sunday, City had the chance to virtually confirm themselves as champions by beating West Ham, which would have left Liverpool with an almost insurmountable task in both points and goal difference. The London Stadium has been a happy hunting ground for City and Guardiola: in seven previous visits there, they had outscored the home side by 23 goals to two.

It was therefore something of a sensation when Jarrod Bowen scored as many goals in the first half as West Ham had managed in the previous 630 home minutes against City.

Vulnerable defence

Even against an opponent that sat back and only attacked with two forward runners at a time, City's defence looked incredibly vulnerable. Guardiola could handle losing any one of Kyle Walker, Ruben Dias and John Stones for a game, but losing all three together is a definite defensive crisis.

Walker and Dias are only 50 per cent of City's starting back four but they provide most of the physicality, with Walker in particular a crucial weapon against the fast breaks invited by City's high line. In his absence Michail Antonio bullied the 37-year-old Fernandinho, who defended against the West Ham striker as though he were playing in the second rather than the last line of defence: attacking the ball and neglecting to defend the space.

West Ham’s first goal came when Fernandinho ran forward from the defensive line to contest a header against Antonio, only for West Ham to send his weak clearance back over his head into space for Bowen. The second saw Fernandinho again attracted forward to challenge Antonio, and then unable to get back fast enough to prevent Bowen shooting past Ederson.

Fernandinho was in trouble, and Guardiola had a £40 million central defensive reserve on the bench in the form of Nathan Ake. But Guardiola's circle of trust, never very expansive, tends to shrink under pressure. He decided to stick with Fernandinho – a gamble that nearly cost City the game when the tired-looking Brazilian played a blind backpass straight to Antonio, who tried to score with a spectacular chip when he had time to try something easier.

But despite coughing up several dangerous chances, City had dominated the game and they clawed back to 2-2 via Jack Grealish's deflected shot and Coufal's own-goal at the near post. Then, as the clock ticked past 80 minutes, Craig Dawson's foul on Gabriel Jesus presented City with the chance to win the game - and effectively the league title – from the penalty spot.

Penalty weakness

At a moment like this, you hope to be able to call on a penalty taker more reliable than Riyad Mahrez, who had scored only 12 of 17 previous Premier League penalties – a 70 per cent conversion rate, well below the league average of 83 per cent.

But penalties are something City don’t do that well. Ilkay Gundogan is their most accomplished taker, with 13 successful career penalties out of 15, but even he has missed two out of five in the league for City, and in any case he was on the bench.

Kevin de Bruyne is the player many might have expected to take responsibility. But his actual penalty conversion rate in the league of 66 per cent was even lower than Mahrez's. Gabriel Jesus has scored just 50 per cent. Neither Grealish, nor João Cancelo, nor Bernardo Silva has ever taken a penalty in senior football.

Of the 11 City players on the pitch, the statistically most successful penalty taker was actually Rodri, who last season against Spurs scored the only Premier League penalty he has yet taken. But City’s more attacking players would presumably have been ashamed to stand back while Rodri stepped up at such a moment.

So destiny called forward Mahrez, the 70 per cent man, to confront a goalkeeper who just happened to be possibly the toughest opponent he could face. Lukasz Fabianski had already saved three penalties this season – including two in the last three weeks, from Jorginho and Maxwell Cornet.

He had faced Mahrez once from the spot before – for Swansea against Leicester back in 2016 – and saved then with a dive to his right. This time he flung his 6'3" frame to the left to block Mahrez's shot, and Aaron Cresswell was first to the rebound to clear.

With that miss, Mahrez’s Premier League success rate fell to 66 per cent – so de Bruyne might as well take City’s next kick. The save was Fabianski’s 13th success against 41 penalties faced in the Premier League. No goalkeeper has saved more.

A Premier League title race that looked over in January therefore goes into the final week with the outcome still uncertain, and City probably needing to win their last game of the season against an Aston Villa team managed by Steven Gerrard and containing former Liverpool players Philippe Coutinho and Danny Ings.

“You know all the narratives that are coming,” a BeIn Sports reporter told Guardiola. “The narrative is your narrative,” he replied, “our narrative is we’re going to play a game, our Etihad Stadium will be sold out, they will help us, we will help them, to make an incredible environment to try to do the perfect game, to win a game.

“It’s an incredible privilege with our people at home, to win one game to be champion,” Guardiola added in the press conference. It’s a privilege City had hoped to avoid.

Still, Villa’s record at the Etihad stadium since City’s Abu Dhabi takeover is awful: played 10, lost 10, scored four, conceded 34. History suggests only one outcome. But as Fabianski showed, every team has a chance when the right man shows up in the right place at the right time.