Manchester City look like the Grinch stealing the Premier League title race as they continued their remarkable winning run with a 1-0 win at Brentford.
For the opening months of the season, much of the talk was of the relative improvement at Liverpool and Chelsea and the exciting three-way tussle for the trophy that would ensue with three teams of such high quality. Yet as the days have drawn shorter it is Pep Guardiola’s champions that have stretched themselves to new limits to leave their rivals under considerable pressure to even last the distance.
Much had been made again following Liverpool’s defeat to Leicester of the incredible resources available to Guardiola, and the manager could afford to bring his £100m signing and a Ballon D’Or nominee back into the side after their recent benchings following a night out in Manchester; Phil Foden and Jack Grealish were two of four changes, with Nathan Ake coming in at left-back and Gabriel Jesus coming back into the team.
The depth in City’s squad comes from versatile players rather than a reserve XI though – Ake for Aleks Zinchenko one example of that – and Rodri’s continued absence meant Fernandinho starting again three days after Leicester tore through him with ease.
The fans enjoying their first season of Premier League football in West London have made the Brentford Community Stadium a difficult place for visiting teams too. Arsenal were beaten here on the opening night of the season, Liverpool could only leave with a draw and Thomas Frank’s side had also taken maximum points from their two most recent home games.
The way Ruben Dias started the first 15 minutes did plenty to dispel the idea that City are invincible.
First, he passed to an opponent in his own half and was lucky not to be booked for a cynical block as he tried to recover. Then he managed to head a cross soaring towards his own goal, forcing Ederson into a good stop. When the resulting corner required Ake and Joao Cancelo to make goalline interventions, Brentford fans – and the rest of the league – rose off their seat in anticipation.
Within a minute, they were behind.
And not just behind, but behind to a beautifully dismissive goal, as filthy and simple as it was meticulously exquisite in its execution … Joao Cancelo rolled the ball back and inside for Kevin De Bruyne to dink in a cross with his first touch that Foden turned past the keeper first time with his left instep.
From under the cosh to in the lead in an instant: “That’s why we’re champions” sang the gleeful away end, with good reason.
Except that did not signal the end of the match, because why would it? No opponents roll over in the Premier League, and Brentford weren’t about to let one goal ruin their evening. The Bees swarmed again, pressing City high and testing them physically as Ivan Toney proved a handful for Dias.
What the rest of the half missed in goalmouth action it made up for in feistiness. Joao Cancelo earned a yellow for a high foot as his opponent stooped to head a 50/50, Fernandinho naughtily stood on Toney’s toes after the ball had gone and received studs raked down his leg from the striker as he went down moments later.
If City can mix it when challenged – especially with Fernandinho at his ferocious best – they would much rather not lose the ball in the first place, and the half-time break allowed them to regain their composure and start the second half in possession in the Brentford half.
Manchester City have started their campaign strongly, riding high in the Premier League and already qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League.
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De Bruyne fashioned a decent effort straight at the keeper and Foden headed in a second from an offside position early in the half as the crowd grew frustrated, loudly cheering whenever their team managed to break free of their half as they waited for the chance that would surely come to equalise.
It never did come though, a testament to the mean defending City have built their title defence on. As Guardiola said recently, they may not be brilliant individually but by working together and not making mistakes they limit the exposure at the back.
“Boring, boring City” was the beleaguered chant from the home end as the Blues passed their way to victory, the only moment of jeopardy when Aymeric Laporte missed a header from a free-kick yet even that did not result in any work for Ederson.
Whatever frustration there was for the Spanish defender looked to have turned to jubilation as he headed in a De Bruyne free-kick with five minutes to go, only for it to be ruled out for a marginal offside. That boosted the home side for one big effort, but still they could not get close to City’s goal.
Having started 2021 in chaos – travelling to London in the midst of a Covid outbreak within the squad that nobody knew how damaging it would be – Guardiola’s side end the year looking to be more dominant than ever in English football as they shut teams out and cut through them at the other end. They can take satisfaction at setting new standards for most wins in a calendar year, most away wins, and most goals scored.
A tenth successive league win moves them eight points clear at the top of the table, with Liverpool a further point back albeit with a game in hand; where their rivals have slipped up in December, a perfect month for City has allowed them to take full advantage.
This was a very different win to the recent high-scoring victories over Leeds or Leicester but all are hoovered up with the same enthusiasm by a group of winners who know that it takes all sorts of wins to get over the line in a title race.
That’s why they’re champions, and that’s why they are looking in a terrific place to defend their title.