Back on the opening weekend of the season, after a defeat to Tottenham Hotspur and as the summer-long pursuit of Harry Kane appeared destined to failure, Pep Guardiola was ever so slightly worried for the campaign ahead. “I didn’t know what would happen,” he admitted in the build-up to this return fixture at the Etihad.
What happened, in fact, was that Manchester City would shake themselves down, win 20 of their 24 games and open up a commanding lead at the top of the Premier League table that convinced most of us that they had won the league by Christmas. It was as if they did not actually need a £150m striker after all. The question is Pep, how are you feeling now?
Perhaps if Kane had joined City, that position would have been even more commanding. Perhaps the race would already be run. Nobody can say for sure. The only thing for certain is that he would not have been playing against them here, scoring a 94th-minute winner – the fifth goal in an extraordinary game – that suddenly makes the title race look a lot more competitive.
Not that Tottenham or Antonio Conte will care about that too much. Ambitions in north London were capped at a top-four finish a long time ago and even that modest target appeared under threat after the consecutive defeats to Southampton and Wolverhampton Wanderers. But after a tumultuous week in which their manager’s future itself has been called into question, this result could represent lift-off for Conte.
City, meanwhile, are only looking over their shoulders. Liverpool are six points behind with a game in hand, to be played against Leeds at Anfield on Wednesday night. There is still a long way to go until the two contenders meet on this ground in early April but it is not inconceivable that, if Jurgen Klopp’s side keep pace then win at the Etihad, they could go top on goal difference. There is suddenly a title race again and City have a familiar foe – a bogey side, even – to blame.
The sight of Son breaking into acres of open space, bearing down on an onrushing Ederson, is a familiar one in this fixture and it only took four minutes to reappear. It was made possible by a sublime pass by Kane who, with his back to goal inside his own half, turned, span and beat City’s high defensive line in a single movement. The instinctive ball caught Ruben Dias on his heels – it is rare for the centre-half’s lack of pace and slight awkwardness of movement to be so effectively exposed – and sent Son racing.
Everyone inside the Etihad was expecting Son to score his seventh goal in nine appearances against Guardiola’s side. But just as thought he was going to accelerate, instead he slowed his run, drawing Ederson all the way out of his area. And just as you thought he was running out of time to apply the finish, he opened his body and squared a pass at the last moment for Kulusevski – one of the players name-checked in Conte’s controversial interview in midweek – to drive into an unguarded net.
Think of either Willian and Eden Hazard’s goals on this ground during Chelsea’s 3-1 victory here in 2016 that super-charged Conte’s Premier League title win. This was another classic City-busting counter, devised and designed all week on the training ground. The key difference this time, though, was that it was still early. Few teams protect a lead against City for 86 minutes plus stoppage time, particularly if they resign themselves to bunkering down in their own penalty box.
Tottenham, in fairness, coped well initially, with wing-backs Ryan Sessegnon and Emerson Royal dropping to form a back five and cutting off the usual routes and avenues that City find to goal. It is exhausting work, though, not just physically but mentally too, requiring absolute concentration. Perhaps that explains why when City’s equaliser came just after around half an hour of dogged Spurs resilience, it came through an unforced, preventable mistake.
It was not Lloris’ first this week either. After his loose punch in defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers last week, this time, he was guilty of not catching the ball cleanly or indeed catching it at all. Raheem Sterling’s cross from the left had whip and curve but did not move so unpredictably to excuse the Tottenham goalkeeper’s failure to collect it. It instead hit his midriff and bounced invitingly for Gundogan, who swept this welcome rebound into the open goalmouth.
It had been coming, in fairness. City were relentless while behind and Tottenham’s inventive attempts at time wasting – there are four-year-olds quicker at tying their shoelaces than Pierre Emile Hojbjerg – were growing gradually more desperate. Spurs could barely get out of their own 18-yard box, let alone over the halfway line, while Guardiola’s players contested every marginal call and the crowd grew febrile. It was a pressure cooker but you wondered whether the heat had been turned a little too high and a little too early.
City were still dominant at the start of the second half but did not enjoy the same long, sustained spells of pressure, while Tottenham rediscovered their release valve. Not long before their second, Son was sent in behind once more. Joao Cancelo did a better job of recovering to close down and the eventual shot on goal was comfortably held by Ederson but it was a warning shot.
Tottenham’s second started with Lloris playing out from the back, presumably to Guardiola’s frustration. City had plenty of opportunities to cut the break short but the best fell again to Dias, who could only glance Kane’s wayward cross straight into the feet of Sessegnon. While he and Son occupied the right-hand side of City’s defence, Kane ghosted through the left-hand side unnoticed by either Ayermic Laporte or Cancelo, until alone inside the box and lifting Son’s cross into the roof of Ederson’s net.
Kane believed he had another not long after, with a brilliant piece of footwork inside the box to bring Kulusevski’s deflected cross under control and beat Ederson at his near post, only for the Swede to have strayed offside in the build-up. City had a lifeline but looked intent on wasting it, creating little in the way of clear-cut opportunities, albeit while forcing one superb save out of Lloris from distance. Guardiola needed a helping hand. Cristian Romero was happy to provide.
When Bernardo Silva’s drive hit Romero square on an open palm in stoppage time, it was inevitable that the play would eventually be pulled back and VAR would award a penalty. Tottenham could have no complaints and only hope that City’s struggles from the penalty spot proved a saving grace. Riyad Mahrez, on as a substitute, has become an expert from the spot however and appeared to have saved a point. He and his team-mates raced back to halfway, believing they could take all three.
But if there was a late onslaught, it came from Tottenham. A long, impressive spell of possession given the mounting pressure resulted in Kulusevski being released down the right once more. His clipped cross hung in the air invitingly but no City defender wanted to reach it as much as Kane, who climbed higher than Walker to connect and drop a header across Ederson.
As his team-mates celebrated, Kulusevski ran back over the touchline to check he was not offside once again. He was not. Kane had made a telling contribution to the title race at the Etihad, just not in the way Guardiola hoped last summer.
Manchester City: Ederson; Walker, Dias, Laporte, Cancelo; De Bruyne, Rodri, Gundogan; Foden, Bernardo, Sterling.
Substitutes: Carson, Stones, Ake, Zinchenko, Fernandinho, Mahrez, Delap, McAtee, Lavia.