Football

Man City find their man for the small moments – and he could decide the title race

Jeremy Doku might not want a reputation as the man for the smaller occasion but he has a capacity to turn a winnable home game into a rout. Pep Guardiola may not trust him too often against elite opposition but the winger is capable of preying on the weak. Consistency can elude the £55m signing, but he can evade defenders when he looks electric and unstoppable.

For the second time this season, he played a part in five goals in a game. Against Bournemouth in November, he scored one and assisted four. If his return against Luton was officially only one goal and one assist, Doku was the constant in giving Manchester City a boost to their goal difference that, while Arsenal still possess an advantage, could prove telling in the title race.

Doku’s very presence was a sign of priorities. Luton rarely find themselves sandwiched by Real Madrid but it may have made the relegation-threatened side the ideal opponents for this weekend, giving Guardiola a chance to rest, rotate, relax and return to the summit of the division with the supporting cast playing starring roles. For all the assumptions that City will not cruise to the title, they had not spent a night top of the table since November. Until now, and even if it is only one, this may have been an illustration that City’s run-in looks laced with fixtures they can win with something to spare.

This was sealed with a flourish, Doku weaving through the Luton defence and placing a shot in the far corner and then teeing up Josko Gvardiol for a second long-range goal with his right foot in as many matches. Once again, Luton can find themselves bracketed with Real, who conceded to the Croatian in similar style on Tuesday.

Luton have now conceded 11 goals in their last two meetings with City. Yet while Guardiola’s side were ahead after 66 seconds and the result never in doubt, it was not until the 28th of their 37 shots that a City player found the net, albeit after Daiki Hashioka had added to his list of inadvertent interventions in the quest for glory. The Luton defender had scored an own goal for Arsenal and added another for City.

He was joined on the scoresheet, somewhat belatedly, by Erling Haaland. When the Norwegian faced Luton in the FA Cup, he departed in the 77th minute with five goals to his name. In a Premier League rematch, he did not strike until the 76th minute, and from the penalty spot after Doku was upended by Fred Onyedinma.

Haaland’s aim was rather less true for the opener when his volley was bound for the corner flag until it hit the unwitting Hashioka in the head and flew in. It stemmed from an axis who unlocked Luton in the FA Cup: Kevin de Bruyne, who recorded four assists then, releasing Haaland for a shot that was saved, while Doku’s subsequent effort was blocked by Alfie Doughty.

De Bruyne was in his element, opening Luton up at will. Somehow, his afternoon ended without an assist. There was no goal, either, though Thomas Kaminski parried one shot. But after a sickness bug meant he was a late withdrawal at the Bernabeu, the Belgian looked ready for the return fixture.

The midfielder to strike, however, was Mateo Kovacic. He scored City’s second with a rising half-volley that was struck with perfect technique after Doku cut the ball back to him. The Croatian’s goals are infrequent but tend to be special.

On a day when three of City’s summer signings struck, the fourth could have made it a clean sweep. Matheus Nunes had clipped the post after another incisive pass from De Bruyne. That was as good as it got for the Portuguese. His time at the Etihad Stadium has been an opportunity he is yet to seize and when he escaped behind the Luton defence, he slipped over. Luton’s goal came when Nunes lost both the ball and his footing, allowing Ross Barkley to effect a shuffle and drive in a shot.

It denied Ederson a clean sheet on his return after a month out. It was largely a quiet affair, though Cauley Woodrow rattled the bar, and two minutes after Kovacic struck, he blocked Doughty’s late effort. With Kyle Walker and Nathan Ake on the bench, City’s defensive injuries are easing, even though John Stones was absent, deemed not fully fit.

The major changes to the starting 11 came in midfield with Rodri granted the rest he requested and joined on the bench by Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish. Enter Doku, Nunes, De Bruyne and Julian Alvarez. Predictably, City extended their unbeaten run on their own turf to 41 games, one off a club record. They could equal a statistic set more than a century ago against Real even if Doku, the tormentor of Luton, is unlikely to start then.

Xural.com

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