Man City turn into Stoke City to dig out Leeds win and thwart Liverpool FC – Stuart Brennan
Pep Guardiola’s brilliant Manchester City team momentarily morphed into Tony Pulis’ Stoke City to reclaim top spot in the thrilling Premier League title race. From hitting the heights of fluid, attacking football against Real Madrid in midweek, the Blues resorted to the rustic attributes of defending with grit, sticking your head in the way of everything, and punishing the opposition from set-pieces.
Rodri and Nathan Ake scored the crucial goals, from a free-kick and a corner by Phil Foden, on a raw, rugged, red-blooded day in Yorkshire. Then Gabriel Jesus made it six goals in three games by sweeping home another meticulous pass from Foden before Fernandinho made a bigger hole in Liverpool’s superior goal difference with a late drive.
That was the perfect response to Liverpool’s win at Newcastle hours earlier that had sent Jurgen Klopp’s side leapfrogging above them into top spot. Liverpool had not been convincing at St James’ Park but got the job done, no doubt feeling the hangover from their Champions League exertions in midweek.
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And days after their high-octane clash with Real Madrid, a City team with five changes had to face a team wearing a similar all-white strip, but very different in approach to the Spanish aristocrats. They made City battle every inch of the way, on a day for big, brave defenders and making the most of set plays.
But for long periods it was never less than nervy. Early in the game City looked like they were about to have a Steven Gerrard moment in the title race, as Joao Cancelo fielded the ball on halfway following a Blue corner. Just like the Liverpool skipper fatefully did against Chelsea in 2014, Cancelo slipped and sent striker Rodrigo streaking towards the City goal.
With Ederson advancing to meet him, it looked like a vital one-on-one moment but Ilkay Gundogan – not really known for his pace – appeared from nowhere, read the Leeds man’s momentary hesitation and got in his block, just in the nick of time.
City had sought to turn the screws early on but were being frustrated by a lively and hardworking Leeds side. But the breakthrough came on 13 minutes, when Raheem Sterling drew a foul from Stuart Dallas out on the Blues’ left flank.
With no Kevin de Bruyne or Riyad Mahrez on the field, Phil Foden took over set-piece duties, and he whipped the free kick straight into the path of Rodri’s run – a precision glancing header found the far corner, to the ecstasy of the travelling fans.
Just like Liverpool had earlier, City looked a little jaded from their Champions League exertions in midweek, and a vigorous Leeds tested their mental fitness as well as their physicality by pressing them hard.
That led to nervy moments for Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake, and a few periods where the whole team had to dig deep. In a season where the sheer quality of both City and Liverpool has shone like a Premier League beacon, it is times like this in which champions are made.
Leeds had been enterprising enough to make the half-time lead look way too slender for City, who squandered another chance after a mazy Sterling run took him deep into the area, only for a comedy of errors by both teams turned the Leeds box into a pinball machine.
It was a punishing first half, with Aymeric Laporte and Robin Koch suffering an ugly clash of heads as the Leeds man tried to reach a cross and the City defender brilliantly got his head there first, with sickening results. Both men needed lengthy treatment and there must have been some doubt as to whether they could continue – but carry on they did.
Just before half-time there was another wince-worthy collision as Jack Grealish and Stuart Dallas raced for a loose ball – the City man got there first and Dallas injured his knee as he clattered into him, conceding the free-kick and getting stretchered off for his troubles.
City went out in search of the killer goal in the second half and after Sterling’s thrusting running had again caused havoc, neither he nor Grealish could finish it off with the Leeds defence in disarray.
But they grabbed the second from another set-piece. Foden was again the provider, spearing a corner deep to the far post, where Ruben Dias headed it down and Ake swept it home. The £41million buy from Bournemouth has been a peripheral figure for most of his City career, sidelined by injury or the superior form of others, but he has made a big contribution in recent weeks defensively, and now with a hugely important goal.
That goal killed the game, taking much of the fight out of the home side, although Joo Cancelo still needed a remarkable headed clearance off the line, and Ederson saved with his feet to maintain the clean sheet.
Either side of those, City added two more goals to carve Liverpool’s goal difference advantage down to just one. Foden expertly played in Jesus, finding space that had been denied him for much of the game, and he swept a shot past Ilhan Meslier to make it three.
Then Fernandinho gave us another reminder of his enduring quality, slamming a shot low and hard into the far corner after Sterling’s burst into the box seemed to have been ended by a push in the back – referee Paul Tierney’s decision to wave play on was odd, but academic as the ball broke to the Brazil international for an emphatic end to the game.