Man City repay Pep Guardiola’s faith to prove there is no need for January transfer gambles – Dominic Farrell
Considering he probably knew the make-up of the squad he would take to Aston Villa at that point, it was a bold proclamation from Pep Guardiola yesterday lunchtime.
Manchester CIty’s bench for the superb 2-1 win at Villa Park featured Jack Grealish and Phil Foden on their return from injuries, five youth teamers and two goalkeepers.
And yet, speaking at his pre-match briefing, Guardiola made it clear a situation he labelled an “emergency” without providing the full details would be no excuse.
“It’s my job to do make them do it well. I don’t believe in saying ‘’Oh, I have these injuries’,” he said.
“[Ilkay] Gundogan the first season [injured his] ACL, Kevin [De Bruyne] the second season we won the Premier League played 10 games. Did you see me complaining?
“We have incredible top players and our job is to make them comfortable and play.”
During the early stages in Birmingham, City could scarcely have looked more comfortable as they sprayed the ball around with a languid swagger.
Raheem Sterling immediately set about Villa right-back Matty Cash. On the other flank, Riyad Mahrez’s first touch looked like the sort of thing you want to put behind every door of the advent calendar.
Bernardo Silva shuttled around knitting everything together. There is no better midfielder in world football right now.
Grealish, on his homecoming, looked on from the bench, having told the Telegraph this week how he had found adapting to life at City a little tougher than he expected.
It was easy to sympathise with that predicament when you saw the fruits of years of intricately grooved work whirling all around his old stomping ground.
New signings can’t just plug in and play within Guardiola’s high-end setup. Grealish will surely get there, but it takes time.
“In the transfers, we try to make decisions to improve the team, not just for me – Jack signed for five or six years, he will have maybe another manager in this period,” Guardiola said on the eve of the match.
The fear as Villa somehow weathered the early storm was that City’s superiority would not be reflected in the scoreline. But then Ruben Dias unfurled his swinger from 25 yards to become their 17th goalscorer of the season.
If there was a touch of fortune about the 27th-minute opener, there was nothing lucky about Dias’s countryman Bernardo scoring one of the finest goals you are ever likely to see – his immaculate volley crowning a sublime length-of-the-field move in which Joao Cancelo, Mahrez, Fernandinho and Gabriel Jesus all played their parts to perfection.
A team so wonderfully in-sync is a better solution to an injury crisis than any January reinforcement could possibly hope to be.
When City switched off during the opening moments of the second half and allowed Olle Watkins to sweep home a smart finish from Douglas Luiz’s corner, it was frustrating to see a chunk of their excellent work undone in a flash
Then it was time to see this depleted collective’s under-rated grit and steel, with the Blues again making good on their manager’s pre-match prophecy.
“When we are winning and winning, the players are there every day, snowing, raining, windy, home, away. That means we are a good club, a good organisation and that makes me so proud,” Guardiola said.
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“Sometimes when you win the title, after there is a tendency to say, ‘I don’t want to run this metre, I don’t want to do this job, I don’t want to do it because I’m good and I won it.’
“But, we are still there. That is good.”
As Villa hurled long throws into the box, the returning Nathan Ake and Oleksandr Zinchenko joined Dias in last-ditch activities and Ederson made a phenomenal point-blank save from Carney Chukwuemeka.
Everybody wanted to run every metre despite the depleted numbers available to cover the distance required. On a night when Liverpool and Chelsea were also victorious, it felt like a big moment for Guardiola and City in what promises to be a gargantuan title race.
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