Sunday, 22 January 2017

Match Report

Amid all the late drama, perhaps the best place to start trying to sum up a chaotic match was the moment Gabriel Jesus supplied the first touch of his Manchester City career. The ball was in the net and the Brazilian was 40 yards into his victory run before one of the ball-boys was impertinent enough to point out the offside flag had gone up. The only word to sum it up was bedlam and, at that precise moment, Pep Guardiola was on his knees, arms reaching out to the skies.
It was the kind of pose Basil Fawlty struck that time his Austin 1100 was giving him trouble. That is what City can do to a manager and, on this occasion, it was easy to understand why Guardiola was filled with frustration. His team had been 2-0 ahead, playing with great authority and the opposition manager, Mauricio Pochettino, did not try to disguise it. “It’s true,” Pochettino said, “Manchester City were better than us.”
This, however, was also an occasion where we learned a little more about the durability of this Spurs side and the qualities that will be essential if they are to sustain their title challenge. By the end, Spurs were even threatening to make it seven straight top-division wins for the first time in half a century. Yet they rode their luck and, though Guardiola has made it a policy not to criticise referees, it was tested by the moment, with the score 2-1, when Raheem Sterling ran into the penalty area and Kyle Walker took emergency action, namely a shove in the back.
Maybe the criticism that Sterling has received in the past for alleged diving dissuaded him from going down. Even so, the push was enough to put him off his shot. Walker admitted afterwards that it should have been a penalty, which would also have meant the formality of a red card. No action was taken and within a minute Spurs had worked the ball upfield to conjure up an equaliser from Heung-min Son, a half-time substitute.
Spurs had certainly made life difficult for themselves after the two mistakes from Hugo Lloris early in the second half had enabled Leroy Sane and Kevin de Bruyne to score and the visitors, already deprived of Jan Vertonghen, also had to deal with a second-half injury for Toby Alderweireld, meaning Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama finished the game in the centre of defence. Yet even in the more difficult moments Spurs never looked like a team that lacked belief and, for all the praise Guardiola reserved for his players, it continues to be startling how easy it is to score against his team.
Spurs had two efforts on target – a far-post header from Dele Alli and a right-foot shot from Son – and that takes Claudio Bravo’s sequence to 16 goals conceded from 24 shots. Bravo, in fairness, could not be blamed on this occasion but the crowd are filled with apprehension every time the ball is in his vicinity. John Stones had been dropped and there cannot have been many City supporters who did not feel a pang of anxiety when they saw Guardiola’s line-up and realised Yaya Touré – hardly a modern-day Claude Makelele – was their only cover in front of defence. City duly maintained their record of only four clean sheets all season, fewer than Bournemouth, Stoke City and Burnley, and the questions persist about the team’s structure.
On the one hand, there is plenty to admire about a manager who shoehorns Sane, De Bruyne, Sterling and David Silva into a side that already has Sergio Agüero in its most advanced position. On the other, there is the persistent sense that Guardiola cannot get the balance right between attack and defence. Agüero’s form is curious, too – he has not scored in any game against top-seven opponents this season.
Pochettino had started with Kevin Wimmer in a three-man central defence but the German had a difficult first half, in the face of some concerted City pressure, and Spurs changed after the interval to a 4-2-3-1 system with Son on the left and Dele Alli moving into a central position behind Harry Kane.
To begin with, it made little difference. City had started the game with an urgency that made it difficult for their opponents to settle and Lloris had been rushed into a couple of kicking errors even before his game turned into a personal ordeal. It was rare to see the Spurs goalkeeper look so accident-prone and the only mitigation, perhaps, is that his mistake for Sane’s goal was still on his mind when he made an even worse error for De Bruyne to score again.
Pochettino argued afterwards that the first one should have been disallowed because when Lloris rushed from his penalty area, in a botched attempt to head away a bouncing ball, the reason why Sane was left clear on goal was because it struck his hand. Five minutes later, Lloris went to gather Sterling’s cross inside his six-yard area and the ball squirted out, just where De Bruyne wanted it. Lloris had made several fine saves in the first half but these were poor errors for a goalkeeper of his distinction.
The game changed after Alli headed in Walker’s right-wing cross just before the hour and the equaliser was a reminder of Spurs at their best, featuring a lovely touch from Harry Kane before Son picked out the bottom corner of Bravo’s net. Jesus, an 82nd-minute substitute, thought he had won it – but he was two yards offside and even the ball-boy seemed slightly embarrassed.
TG

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