A week on from his display of fist-pumping pride in his Manchester City players, Pep Guardiola left the Etihad bearing a sense of immense frustration that he will hope doesn’t linger for the next six weeks.
City produced the scintillating late drama against Fulham, but with 11 men they couldn’t break down a stubborn Brentford for a second time and had to watch on as the Bees did to them what they had done to Fulham last week.
We were in the 98th minute when Ivan Toney scored his second goal of the game and it was hard to say Brentford didn’t deserve it. This was as poor as City have played all season.
When Guardiola talked about the ecstasy of that winner a week ago in his press conference on Friday, he felt compelled to mention the bad moments he’s shared with these supporters over the last six-and-a-bit years as well. He couldn’t have imagined this afternoon would fall into the latter category. The heaven and hell of football.
It means Arsenal will be top of the Premier League for the next six weeks, including at Christmas. You feel they needed that accolade more than City did and it will be disappointing for Guardiola that his team didn’t put the Gunners under pressure on Saturday night.
This wasn’t City’s first bad day of the season, but it’s the one that might sting the most. After dropping points against Newcastle, Aston Villa and Liverpool they were able to bounce back immediately and did just that. Maybe they will win their next Premier League game after this as well, but we’ll have to wait 47 days to find out.
That’s 47 days to mull over a defeat that nobody saw coming. Guardiola will head to Barcelona next week but might struggle to relax with family with this result whirring in his mind. Erling Haaland’s Marbella sunshine won’t feel quite as warm. For the rest, the World Cup awaits, and maybe that was the problem.
Guardiola picked a starting XI that included 10 players heading to Qatar, meaning a nervous lunchtime for several international managers and one last 90 minutes to get through for those aware the dream of a World Cup was now within touching distance.
The City manager admitted earlier this week that it was inevitable the World Cup would be on the minds of players by now, with the tournament so close, and one injury capable of wrecking those aspirations of appearing in Qatar. It looks like he was right.
If there was the hope of cruising through this fixture while staying unscathed, City’s players were jolted from their slumber almost immediately.
David Raya had been practising his long kicks during the warm-up and the Spaniard is as good as any Premier League goalkeeper with the ball at his feet. His arrowing long pass in the first couple of minutes was flicked on by Toney and Rico Henry‘s pass sent Frank Onyeka scurrying clear, but Ederson was off his line quickly to smother the shot.
The Brazilian was called into action again within the first five minutes, saving from Toney after Mbuemo had squared to him inside the penalty box, but eventually, the barricades were breached.
City had been living on the edge in truth, their passing unusually poor and the intensity absent. Again it came from the direct route. Raya’s free-kick was launched towards the City box, with Ben Mee outjumping Manuel Akanji and Toney getting ahead of Aymeric Laporte to loop a header beyond Ederson.
It felt like City needed something to get them going and they might have got it with a flurry of VAR reviews. First Henry’s handball after Bernardo had flicked the ball past him was adjudged to be just outside the area, when the replay suggested it could have been on the line. From the resulting free-kick there was a check for Mee pulling Erling Haaland back and Henry tripping Kevin De Bruyne. Neither was a penalty, but the sense of injustice riled the Etihad crowd and provided a spark of energy to the players.
It was just enough fuel to haul themselves back level before the break. City’s attacks had lacked the usual precision, but when De Bruyne’s corner found its way to Phil Foden at the back post, he lashed an unstoppable half-volley in the top corner.
It was a rare moment of the quality we have come to expect from City, but it continued to stand out in isolation rather than the sign of an onslaught to come. Indeed, the tightrope the players were walking was laid bare early in the second half when Laporte suffered a cut to the head that left him prone in the penalty area for around seven minutes. A bandage around his head was enough for the defender to carry on, but the seriousness with which he was treated slowed any momentum City had.
Ederson was still regularly involved, saving sharply from Toney, and Laporte produced a miraculous clearance with the striker waiting for a tap-in inside the six-yard box.
City’s desperation was beginning to show. Joao Cancelo and De Bruyne both tested Raya from range but they were routine saves, before Cancelo was booked for an obvious dive, his final involvement before being replaced by Julian Alvarez. The best chance had already been and gone, Ilkay Gundogan scooping a good chance over after exchanging passes with the quiet Erling Haaland.