Manchester City correct their trajectory against Tottenham
Seven days on from Manchester United's unlikely comeback at the Etihad, Manchester City surely now appreciate why winning the Premier League on that day was so important. A third championship under Abu Dhabi rule may have been a formality for months, but with that loss and the subsequent twin defeats to Liverpool have come asterisks. Not ones which this team or manager deserve, but the kind which rival supporters delight in applying.
And, in a way, they're entitled to do so. After spending the past eight months decorating their season's canvas, Pep Guardiola and his players have knocked over the paint can; the past ten days have been very clumsy indeed. They came to Wembley to face Tottenham on Saturday knowing that they couldn't win the title, but eager nonetheless to restore their lustre.
And they certainly began like a team with a point to prove. Spurs' recent run of form has equalled a club record in the modern era, but they were left dizzy by the opening exchanges. Leroy Sane hit a post, Raheem Sterling wriggled with intent in the attacking third, and David Silva dropped ominously into pockets of space between the home midfield and defence. The pressure wasn't quite relentless, but the warning lights were certainly on.
Then, the bulbs burst. First, Vincent Kompany's long ball over the top freed Gabriel Jesus, who comfortably outpaced Davinson Sanchez before firing under Hugo Lloris. One-nil, and a lead City absolutely deserved. Lloris was blameless for that goal, left hopelessly exposed by a defence caught too high up the pitch, but he was the architect of the second. Sterling found space, this time on the left, and the Frenchman's charge from goal succeeded only in skittling the winger to the floor - outside the box in reality, inside according to Jon Moss.
Penalty. Ilkay Gundogan. 2-0. A terrible decision from a referee with a habit of pointing too quickly to the spot, but still an advantage that Guardiola's players were worth.
From nowhere, though, Tottenham seemed to rebalance. Perhaps galvanised by injustice, they began to move possession around with pace and accuracy. Mauricio Pochettino's full-backs were suddenly in play, charging for the byline and opening space in the middle of the field. Into those gaps flowed Lamela, Kane and Alli and home pressure began to build. Kane and Eriksen exchanged passes on the edge of the box and the Dane, with the help of a ricochet, stabbed Spurs back into the game.
A strange, strange half. But then, was it? It conformed to the pattern of previous City games and they wilted in almost exactly the same way. All theories should be tempered by the knowledge that we are eight months into a hard season during which they've competed on three fronts, but it's not quite a concern which can be waved away.
Credit to City, though, because they took the punches. Tottenham enjoyed plenty of possession after the interval, but without ever really seeing the whites of Ederson's eyes. Guardiola's defence held, denying space centrally and ushering the threat to the side and away. And, gradually, the visitors' quick breaks began to reappear, with De Bruyne and Sterling becoming increasingly prominent. Jesus, having gone past Sanchez again, miscued horribly when through on goal and Sterling, too, butchered a wonderful chance to put the game away.
Their profligacy didn't last. Reacting first to a sharp Lloris save, Sterling finally got his goal, lashing high into the net and puncturing the Spurs balloon for good. Excellent news for City, of course, but also for England and Gareth Southgate: Sterling is still not the most reliable finisher, but he looks fresh, dangerous and ready for Russia.
3-1 was fair. The scoreline disguised just how competitive the game was for its middle hour, but reflected that - in the fine margins and during the moments which really mattered - City were just a bit too smart, a bit too resilient and, as the rest of the Premier League has often found, a bit too good. The issues which have appeared recently are of note and, doubtless, another round of spending will be aimed at curing them, but - for now and whenever it's confirmed - they're worthy champions.