For three months, there had been a growing sense of inevitability about Manchester City – about City, the title race, and the specter of an irredeemable lead. There was a fear that a day like Sunday might arrive.
It hadn’t been an entirely foregone conclusion. City still had to land one forceful blow. Manchester United had the chance to inflict damage of its own, and bring the top of the table back into focus. The dilemma of a potential runaway Premier League winner had to be resolved. The Manchester Derby was the stage.
And City seized it.
In the end, Pep Guardiola’s side needed to land two blows. It did so, uncharacteristically, via two set pieces, and two instances of lax Man United defending. Nicolas Otamendi pounced on the second United mishap to give City a 2-1 lead early in the second half.
But City also needed its goalkeeper, Ederson, to produce a magical sequence to dodge United’s retaliation. The Red Devils, after an hour of borderline bus parking, pushed hard for an equalizer. Romelu Lukaku almost had it, if not for Ederson’s throat, and then the Brazilian keeper’s chest:
City extended its Premier League winning streak to a record-breaking 14 games. That’s fourteen wins in a row since a 1-1 draw at Everton on the second weekend of the season, the most ever by any team in a single English top flight season. It’s 46 points out of 48, 11 more than the closest competitor, United. It’s title odds north of 90 percent.
Sunday’s first half was all City. Or maybe it was all Mourinho. Or maybe both. The Citizens had 75 percent possession. They won moments of transition, and mostly stifled United’s counterattacks. They looked most dangerous attempting to play one-twos in and around the City penalty area.
They failed to pass and move all the way through United’s defense, but went ahead when David Silva pounced on a second ball in the box:
City’s defense, however, made a shocking mistake of its own in first-half stoppage time. Otamendi and makeshift left back Fabian Delph combined to present Marcus Rashford with a golden opportunity, and the young English forward took it:
With Paul Pogba suspended after his red card against Arsenal, Mourinho reverted to a 4-2-3-1 with Jesse Lingard in behind Romelu Lukaku. In the first half, it was restricted by City’s quality on both sides of the ball. The lineup itself, with Rashford and Anthony Martial on the wings, wasn’t defensive. But the approach to the game – or perhaps simply the players’ tendencies – was.
The pattern of the match didn’t change until Guardiola’s second substitution. He replaced Gabriel Jesus with Eliaquim Mangala, and City settled into a more conservative shape. David Silva almost played as a false nine. United gradually eased onto the front foot.
The pressure from the hosts climaxed in the 84th minute. Anthony Martial’s clever volleyed cross found Lukaku in space on the six-yard box. The Belgian striker, whose goalscoring form has been the subject of consternation at Old Trafford, did what he needed to do and got his shot on frame. But Ederson, who had made several other smart stops, spread himself to keep City ahead.
The roar from the visiting fans at the final whistle reflected the significance of the result. United was playing for a title race. City might as well have been playing for the title. It’s only December, but that title might as well have already been won.
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