Riyad Mahrez's early strike seals Manchester City win against Tottenham at Wembley

Miguel Delaney
The Independent

A result that implies normal service, as Manchester City assert their superiority over the Premier League with yet another big-six win to stay top, but from the most abnormal of situations.

This wasn’t City at their best, and it was a long way off Tottenham Hotspur at their best, with that difficult not to connect to the somewhat farcical surroundings. This 1-0 win for Pep Guardiola’s side was played out on a pitch ravaged by a series of NFL games, with the American competition’s faded logo and markings still so visible on the grass that was left, only putting further focus on the fact this match was supposed to be played on the Sunday but at the new White Hart Lane.

The fair conclusion is that also played a part in a strangely low crowd of just 56,854, with some Spurs fans speaking of mildly protesting the situation. It all led to one of the strangest big-six games for some time – and maybe even a late miss that so cost Spurs – with that crowd itself often only sounding like it was no more than 2,000 amid the echoes of this cavernous stadium.

The one moment of purity and conviction in all of this was Riyad Mahrez’s match-winner, and the celebration that followed. Having so sleekly finished, he gestured to the sky in commemoration of the tragic death of Vishai Srivaddhanaprabha, his patron at title-winning Leicester City.

It so stood out on the night, and settled the night.

Even the build-up to that goal however reflected the ragged nature of the game.

Mahrez impressed on the poor Wembley pitch (Getty)
Mahrez impressed on the poor Wembley pitch (Getty)

Sure, it might have ended up with City scoring the type of five-a-side cut-back-and-finish move they have made their speciality, but that wasn’t really how they crafted it. There wasn’t much craft at all. There was admittedly another brilliant Ederson ball that really can’t be described as a punt, but City still got a bit of a break as Kieran Trippier failed to just head it. Sterling was left to strip past and easily square the ball back to an evidently emotional Mahrez.

While that should really have set the pattern of the game given what City are usually like when they go ahead, and can really get going in possession, this was just another oddity. There was no pattern.

There were only break-outs of attacking play, and quality. Mahrez did later hit the post, and Kane hit what was close to being a brilliant long-range strike, but the match was still characterised by a strange lack of quality given the teams.

Kane had one significant chance in the first-half but his touch let him down (Getty)
Kane had one significant chance in the first-half but his touch let him down (Getty)

Mahrez laboured on the ball far too long when he could have released Sterling, Toby Alderweireld headed into the arms of Ederson too easily, and there was generally too much chaos in the backlines without the precision in attack to punish it. That was summed up when Kane was put through on goal with City properly caught out, only to take a dreadful first touch.

And this was the wider issue. It was particularly difficult to divorce moments like this this from the state of the pitch and the strangeness of the occasion.

There was admittedly the unsuitability of the Spurs formation to the game, given how vulnerable Trippier and Ben Davies looked at times. Pochettino would surely have gone with a three-man backline had Jan Vertonghen been fit. As it was, his side were too often overrun, but City weren’t for once overwhelming.

Aguero was presented with two good striking opportunities in the second half, only to hit both straight an out-of-form Hugo Lloris.

It must have been galling for Pochettino that City could then replace the Argentine with a returning Kevin De Bruyne, effectively forcing the Spurs boss to bring on one of his own recently injured stars in Dele Alli.

Erik Lamela missed a glorious opportunity towards the end of the match (Getty)
Erik Lamela missed a glorious opportunity towards the end of the match (Getty)

For all the fear factor in De Bruyne, mind, he ended up central to a moment that summed up the match. The Belgian – of all players – got caught with the ball under his own feet in his own box, only for Erik Lamela to then blaze the ball well wide with a bizarre effort.

It was still better than his next effort. With Dele naturally at the centre of what was finally a flowing Spurs surge, the sub fed Lamela right in front of goal… just to see Lamela offer up an even worse effort as he again found the stands rather than net.

Replays however showed that the ball bobbled up off the bad pitch, and might well have caused Lamela to hit it with his ankle rather than his foot.

And yet you could say it was arguably fitting. Spurs shouldn’t have been playing this game here, on a pitch like this, and just paid another price for that.

This, meanwhile, was why City paid for Mahrez. They weren’t at their best but still showed why there might be real ground between themselves and the rest by the end of the season.

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