Defending Premier League champions Manchester City resigned title-challenging hopefuls Leicester City to a 3-1 humbling at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday night. At the final whistle, Pep Guardiola’s side having gained three points are on 38 points, while Brendan Rodgers’ men remain on 39, 10 points off Liverpool who have played a game less due to their Club World Cup commitments in Qatar.
Jamie Vardy scored the early goal for Leicester but only to have his hands on his haunches as he saw his side were pegged back thrice by Gabriel Jesus, Ilkay Gundogan and former partner-in-crime Riyad Mahrez.
Will this be the result that wilts Leicester lustre? Can this win be the perfect trampoline for the Manchester club to string together a sequence of results that sees them close the gap on runaway leaders, Liverpool? We look at one of the season-defining top-of-the-table clashes where third-placed Manchester City tried to outfox second-placed Leicester.
Bite to back the bark
Granted, the scoreline was convincing for Guardiola’s men in sky blue, but it was slightly flattering.
Soothsayers would have been coming out in force ahead of this game, with Leicester winning none of their last three games. Reasonable to assume that the length of the season will be taking a toll on the depth of their squad or lack of sooner rather than later and that ‘soon’ is now.
Leicester did look leggy in patches and they could have easily been a goal down as early as the first minute. Youri Tielemans for instance, inattentively, played a lazy ball back into the box for Gabriel Jesus to swoop down, only for the Belgian international to redeem himself with a bock before the Brazilian could wind up his cogs for a shot.
By the 10th minute, the Manchester City plan was clear. The hosts were playing a high line press to unnerve the visitor and cause defensive errors and clip the ball as high up the pitch as possible.
It was Vardy’s former accomplice who was out to prove that Leicester are poorer without him. He was Manchester City’s best player on the night and when his goal came on the 30th minute, it was almost expected in the manner that it did. Cutting in from the right flank, he wrong-footed Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel with a deflected low, driven shot off of Çağlar Söyüncü. The Danish goalkeeper could do little but watch the ball crawl into the net.
It would be a mistake to assume that this match was straightforward. For large parts of the match, Manchester City resorted to long shots and early crosses in order to break down an admirably compact Leicester backline. Leicester too were forced to look for the long ball out. But with Jamie Vardy chasing them down, it’s not as much an indictment.
Despite the quick interchange in their one-touch passes around the Leicester box confused the defenders as to where to not look, the one-time Premier League Champions were not short of neither competence or technique to cope with the onslaught. In fact, they invited it.
It was like for a twirly moustachioed villain waiting for the perfect timing to spring the trap. And it did work: a counter resulting from a Manchester City attack saw Jamie Vardy racing at Fernandinho like a flaming bat out of hell. Ederson tried to narrow the angle by coming off his line while his Brazilian compatriot was half a foot away from a timely block - that was the exact moment when the league’s top-scorer turned off his afterburners and swayed away from the convergence of the challenges. The ball was scooped into the empty goal like a cherry on a banana split.
The Foxes looked primed to raid another high-profile coop, leaving mayhem and trail of feathers in their wake. But it wasn’t to be.
Riyad Mahrez commented on the goal Leicester scored against the run of play at the post-match presser: “Bit strange that goal at the beginning. I think we played very well, they scored during our best moment but we came back.”
One of the defensive masterclasses was applied by former Manchester United player Johnny Evans. On the 10th minute, with Raheem Sterling bearing down on goal, the Leicester City defender matched him stride for stride and backheeled the ball away with a nip.
Not everyone in his team measured up to the task of keeping Sterling at bay. Ricardo Domingos Barbosa Pereira brought down Manchester City’s star player as he accidentally slipped. VAR deemed it as a penalty, for which German Ilkay Gundogan stepped up and slotted it into Kasper Schmeichel’s left with panache and poise. The call was dubious as it was more like Sterling falling on the player than Ricardo tripping him.
By the end of the first half, Manchester City were hitting the kind of pace and transitions in their attack that made them look close to their best, carrying on their form from their last week’s strutting win vs Arsenal. This was a half that brought Pep Guardiola’s art of winning, deliberate tactical fouls into the spotlight again. A skillset that might serve them well as the season progresses, but one that bends the rules of the game and won’t win him any credit from neutrals tuning in.
Manchester City however still looked in perpetual jeopardy every time the ball approached anywhere near the Jamie Vardy. An early cross from the striker from the right was almost turned in by teammate 22-year-old Harvey Barnes which could have brought the score level. But he couldn’t apply the telling touch that was needed.
Gabriel’s Jesus goal on the 69th minute (his first since January) was made entirely in DeBruyne-land. The Belgian’s unexpected burst of pace at the edge of Leicester’s left-hand side left Soyuncu panting for breath. He then squared off 4 (that’s right, 4) Leicester defenders near the goal with a low cross which met the foot of a thankful Jesus.
Manchester City fans, already anxiety-ridden when they see any of their players go down, due to their long injury list this season held their breath as Kevin De Bruyne pulled up with a cramp in the dying embers of the game. He insisted there was nothing to worry about after the game:
“Just a little bit of cramp, it was a game that pushed up hard. In the end my body asked me to take a rest.” But he didn’t leave the cameras without adding a little bit of salt in the wounds of Leicester fans who jeered Riyad Mahrez’s every touch: “Today we have another evidence why Riyad Mahrez is one of the best in the league. One against one, he is one of the most dangerous wingers in the league.” But Leicester already know that.
What could be a balm for the bruises that Leicester have picked up along the way of this unexpected title challenge is competent business being in the January transfer market. Thankfully for them, it’s only 10 days away. But before that, they will be welcoming Liverpool at their den. And you know what they say about hurt foxes with their backs to the wall? Liverpool should be wary. This Leicester team has a bite to back their bark.
Updated Date: Dec 22, 2019 13:31:13 IST