Pep Guardiola was not waving the white flag after Manchester City suffered a late and controversial collapse against Manchester United, but nor was he tubthumping.
City were 12 minutes away from a restorative victory at Old Trafford after Jack Grealish came off the bench to open the scoring.
But Bruno Fernandes fired United level after Marcus Rashford left the ball for his teammate and was adjudged not to have interfered with or affected play from a clearly offside position. Rashford then continued his phenomenal run of form with his eighth goal in seven outings since the World Cup.
“If we don’t win, we don’t win. We are not going to win every title for the next 25 years. We will fight because we saw today that we want to fight and played to win. But sometimes football is like that, you don’t win,” Guardiola said, knowing his side could be eight points behind leaders Arsenal by the end of the weekend.
“Of course we want to try but what I want is to behave in this way. Sometimes it will happen, sometimes not. I know all the time you have to be better to win this league.”
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City have certainly not been in the same mood as their tormentor Rashford since the post-Qatar resumption. There have been impressive wins over Liverpool and Chelsea in the cups, while Leeds were dealt with expertly at a hostile Elland Road.
Yet crisis club Everton left Etihad Stadium with a battling point and Guardiola was rightly scathing over his team’s efforts in the abject 2-0 Carabao Cup defeat to Southampton that preceded the trip across town.
City have won four of the past five Premier League titles, which might explain Guardiola’s phlegmatic outlook. The previous team to win three in a row were Alex Ferguson’s United between 2006/07 and 2008/09.
The short answer is obviously yes. City’s current trajectory is not helpful but in the hours after their defeat at Old Trafford, SkyBet still had Guardiola’s side listed as narrow favourites (10/11) ahead of Arsenal (11/10), with United coming in (10/1) in the betting.
In this equation, City’s recent history of getting the job done time and again is given due weight. But there are still factors within their less-than-ideal present that can alter the picture.
The unusual configuration of this season either side of a World Cup and the postponement of a raft of games around the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s death means the City vs. Arsenal title battle has so far taken place at a distance.
A rearranged clash at Emirates Stadium takes place on February 15, while Arsenal might have to head to east Manchester on April 26 with everything up for grabs.
Before that, the sides meet in an intriguing FA Cup clash on January 27. City will have plenty of opportunities to make a direct impression upon Arsenal. The ground lost this winter means they must.
All roads lead to north London over the next few weeks when it comes to City’s path to the title. They are back in action on Thursday against Antonio Conte’s Tottenham Hotspur, another team they are yet to face in 2022/23.
That one certainly requires a change of fortune. Even when City were tearing up the opposition domestically, they still generally found time to lose to Spurs.
Over the past three seasons, City’s Premier League record in these fixtures is one win, one draw and four losses, despite Spurs sacking three managers during this period. Conte’s future remains up in the air, so perhaps he’s facing Guardiola at the perfect time.
City will certainly feel that they owe Spurs one across the games on January 19 and February 5. Before that, Spurs host Arsenal in the north London derby on Sunday. What Conte’s men get out of those three games will have a gigantic impact on the title picture.
The Manchester derby was Haaland’s third game and second start without a goal. Call off the tests, he’s a human and not a mad goals robot.
The 22-year-old was a bit of a peripheral figure at Old Trafford, City are still adjusting their wider game to accommodate him and he has not returned to top gear since the mid-season break.
Still, he did score four times in three games after the resumption and has 27 in 24 appearances overall. It’s an absurd record and any team near the top with such a player in their ranks has a big chance of success.
City do need to spark things around Haaland a little more than they’re managing right now. For all their impressive control during the second half at Old Trafford, they had an expected goals figure of 0.65 according to Opta. In general, chances have not been flowing as much away from home.
The solution might come in finding a way to give Julian Alvarez a little more game time. Guardiola and club captain Ilkay Gundogan have suggested over the past week that attitude, body language and low mood is an issue for some in the squad.
Not for Alvarez, buoyed by his role in Argentina’s World Cup triumph and an effervescent presence whenever he is on the pitch. Not for the first time this season, he could be the man to ignite a team wearing sky blue and white.
Spanish centre-back Laporte was a towering figure in last season’s titanic title battle with Liverpool. This time around, he has made just four Premier League appearances and not featured at all in the top flight since the World Cup.
This is predominantly down to the after-effects of knee surgery but City are also well-stocked at centre-back. Ruben Dias and John Stones missed the derby through injury, with Nathan Ake and Manuel Akanji impressive in their absence (Akanji even expertly played Rashford offside for the United equaliser).
But Laporte’s penetrative range of passing with his wand of a left foot give City a different dimension. It makes it harder for teams to sit in and hold their shape, and moving opposition defences around means Haaland can be found in more promising positions as opposed to having passes hopefully punted in his direction when the tide turns.
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If City had only won two-thirds of their games near the halfway point of the campaign over recent seasons, they would have had to forget about the title.
The duels with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool made 90 points feel like a minimum requirement. The sapping effects of the 2021/22 title battle have been easy to see in both teams this time around, although Liverpool’s decline is more visible on account of them slumping into mid-table.
City are hanging in there. Not for much longer if themselves and Arsenal stay on their present courses, but we do not know yet whether that is viable for Mikel Arteta’s side.
If the Gunners keep pocketing points at their current rate, they will storm to that new City and Liverpool benchmark and be crowned champions. If they wobble, a mid-80s haul might be enough — bringing City, and United for that matter, back into the picture.
Jack Grealish scores off the bench to give Man City a derby lead! ⚽
What a time to bag his second of the season! 🎯 pic.twitter.com/xScG02EcK2
It felt like Jack Grealish would finally get the big moment with City to match his transfer fee. The celebrations in front of the away supporters at Old Trafford showed clear affection from teammates and supporters for a popular player.
It left a similar feeling to when Grealish came on at the Santiago Bernabeu last May, produced a swaggering cameo and almost scored twice, before Real Madrid completed an astonishing late comeback to break City hearts.
Much has been made of the former Aston Villa man’s lack of goal involvements since joining City, but he followed two assists at Elland Road by setting up the winner for Riyad Mahrez at Stamford Bridge in City’s previous road trips.
For the third straight away game, he produced a telling contribution; for the second in succession he changed the complexion of the contest.
City need players with a feel for the big moments and how to grasp them over the coming weeks. Grealish would not normally have sprung to mind as a man for such tasks, but that might be about to change.
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