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Manchester City 1-0 Tottenham: Nerves understandable given champions have no margin for error
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Last Updated: 21/04/19 7:02am
With no margin for error in this Premier League title race, Manchester City had to battle Tottenham and their own nerves to go back to the top of the table. Adam Bate was at the Etihad Stadium to see City make it 10 wins in a row - and show they are well aware they might need to make it 14 in a row if they want to retain their title...
There is a notion that nerves are the exclusive preserve of a Liverpool side chasing their first title in 29 years but there are two teams desperate to win this Premier League title and that was evident in Manchester City's 1-0 win over Tottenham on Saturday lunchtime.
Phil Foden got the only goal of the game inside the first five minutes - the first Premier League goal of his career - but what followed was a tense affair in which Tottenham had a number of chances to take this title race out of the hands of the reigning champions.
The anxiety inside the stadium was palpable and in a moment befitting of the match itself, but utterly incongruous given the quality of City's play this season, the final kick of the contest was a desperate boot down the field from Fernandinho. It was that sort of day.
The game had been billed as Tottenham's repeat or Manchester City's revenge but for the reigning champions this was never going to be about the latter. Pep Guardiola's team are in the business of repetition, though, and in grinding out this three points it was a reminder that it is their relentlessness that could yet emerge as the story of the season.
Having come through the emotional exhaustion of that Champions League exit in midweek, City now know that if they can negotiate the Manchester derby this coming Wednesday then they are closing in on history nevertheless. They will not be the champions of Europe but they can still become the first team this decade to retain the Premier League trophy.
That would be no mean feat given what Liverpool have been doing down the M62. Jurgen Klopp is making City work harder to keep this crown than anyone could ever have expected. The Reds are likely to get to 97 points. It is just that City, incredibly, still fancy their chances of making it to 98. It is an astonishing effort and Guardiola clearly appreciates that.
"Being still here with 86 points after 100 points last season, it is one of the most remarkable things I ever lived in my career as a football player or a manager," he said afterwards.
"It was not our best performance but today they played with nothing to lose and we played to lose the Premier League. They didn't have the pressure we had. In football and all sports, when you have the pressure you have to show it. Of course, we didn't make the best performance but what they have done today is massive."
Foden's big moment
There were few signs of the nerves that were to follow in the opening exchanges. City set about Spurs with gusto from the outset, putting the press on goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga, and it was symptomatic of their front-foot attitude that Foden, making only his second Premier League start, found himself in the box for the breakthrough goal.
It was wonderfully unselfish from captain Sergio Aguero to find the teenager with the header, but the credit goes to Foden for being there. "He is a guy who has the capacity to arrive in the box," said Guardiola afterwards. "Today we needed his capacity to press high."
Foden was full of energy and no little class, drawing gasps with one swift turn and always showing for the ball. He has been made to wait for this opportunity in a big game but the time spent watching David Silva from the substitutes' bench has not been wasted. He continues to look at home in this side - and what a side it is in which to make your home.
Perhaps the fact that Spurs were the visitors helped to concentrate the mind and Bernardo Silva was outstanding throughout, but there were still some worrying signs of the lapses that proved so costly in Europe. Christian Eriksen had a one-on-one opportunity inside the first quarter of an hour and Heung-Min Son got through too just moments after that.
Guardiola looked to his colleagues on the bench for an explanation after that one but Son forced his way through again before the break only to again be denied by Ederson. Mauricio Pochettino claimed afterwards that the goalkeeper had been the man of the match.
This was a far from perfect performance, but perhaps that was to be expected. It was a sunny day in Manchester but this was still the morning after the Wednesday night before.
Some of the supporters returning to the scene were confronted with yet more flags - a reminder of the hope and optimism that had engulfed the ground just 65 hours earlier. Stand By Me was the Oasis song of choice before kick-off, hammering home the message of togetherness. But it was still mentally taxing to ask these players to go again so soon after that disappointment. Physically taxing too, as it soon became clear.
Coping without KDB
Kevin De Bruyne had been magnificent in midweek, producing one of the great performances by a player in a vanquished team, but the sight of him dropping to the deck before trudging from the field clutching his hamstring was just another setback that City had to endure in this game.
They do not want to have to do without him for the run-in but then they have had to cope with his absence for much of the campaign. "One of the best players has not been involved all season," said Guardiola afterwards. "So being there, being there, being there, is really remarkable." But if there is a quality that sets apart this City squad from the rest it is that there is always another willing and able to step up when called.
Unfortunately for City, while there was an experienced replacement waiting to come on for De Bruyne, the second goal itself never came, even when Gazzaniga was able to deny Raheem Sterling with his boot from close range. As a consequence, there was anguish around the ground when the board went up to reveal that there would be four minutes of stoppage time. Fortunately for City, there was no unwelcome sting in this particular tail.
All of which makes for a strange lead-in to the Manchester derby on Wednesday. There was enough vulnerability on show in City's back-line to give belief to Liverpool fans hoping for an unlikely favour from their old rivals United. But there was enough resolve shown by the reigning champions to suggest they can keep even strong opponents at arm's length.
No margin for error
If they can complete the job with an impeccable finish - one that would mean extending their winning run in the Premier League to 14 matches - it would be some achievement. The quadruple dare not speak its name now but City are just five wins away from the treble.
The problem for Guardiola is that there is no margin for error and he knows it. His great strength as a manager is that he is able to win again and again, week after week, and it is this quality that he admires most in his teams. It is part of why he has won the title in seven of his nine seasons as a top-flight managers. The cups have not always bent to his whim.
Guardiola is acutely aware that the Champions League has become a stick with which to beat him. The man widely regarded as the greatest coach of his generation has not made the final of Europe's elite competition in his last seven attempts despite coaching three of the continent's best - and richest - teams in that time.
For a man who craves control, cup competitions owe far too much to luck. A league can allow for those moments of madness and misfortune - an Andros Townsend wonder strike, a Willy Boly goal diverted in by his hand, or a penalty blazed over the bar by Riyad Mahrez. When those things happen in a cup competition there is no coming back.
But now Guardiola finds himself contesting a league title that feels like a knockout competition. That is what Liverpool's own excellence has turned this title race into. He insists his team have already had to become accustomed to that reality.
"Now it looks like it's about the next game and the next game, but we have been living that for a long time with the rival that we have," said Guardiola. "We are against the best Liverpool ever, one of the best teams I have ever played against offensively and defensively.
"So we are here for the last three months knowing that if we lose a game then we are going to lose the competition. We have won 10 games in a row in the Premier League and we are going to have to win 14 to be champions. We know that if we lose a game we are out."
Last season, City won a record 32 games to become champions. A one off. But this season they have won 28 games and have four still to play. The possibility of repeating the feat remains and they are having to do so in the knowledge that if they do not do it then the title is lost.
No wonder there are nerves, and there will be more nervy moments to survive, no doubt. But not many of them. We are in the end game now and, albeit three days later than they would have liked, Manchester City passed their Tottenham test. The fate of the title is still in their hands as they prepare to make that short trip to Old Trafford on Wednesday.