Manchester City seem intent on making their title defense a procession. Their lead is now 12 points and though Liverpool can cut it back to nine by beating Leicester on Thursday, Pep Guardiola’s team have a relentlessness that may soon propel them far into the distance.
Guardiola often speaks of the significance of how his side “arrives” in February, when the business phase of the campaign begins. On this evidence City are hitting their best rhythms with the spring months beckoning, precisely as he wishes.
Riyad Mahrez and Kevin De Bruyne were the scorers there, but it was another impressive all-round effort that will enthuse Guardiola, the master team-builder. This is City’s supreme strength: no single player is ever relied upon, as is underlined by the lack of a traditional No 9 being made a non-issue by Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling all contributing seven league goals. De Bruyne is next highest with six.
Guardiola’s style is to talk up every opponent in quasi-awed terms, as if his team of A-list talents may struggle against them. This is often the precursor to them going out and giving them a schooling. So it was for their visitors on Wednesday night. At their best Brentford combine muscularity with neat movement in possession, but they were put in the role that so many before them have played in this stadium: unwilling ball-chasers pushed back to near their own area by City’s yo-yo-like ball retention .
John Stones, stepping forward from right-back, prompted one move that involved Rodri, Sterling, and Riyad Mahrez before a corner was claimed. Next, though, João Cancelo had Guardiola rubbing his face – the Catalan’s “tell” that something is awry – after the left-back’s clumsy touch allowed Mads Roerslev to turn defense into attack down the right wing-back’s flank.
Sterling next won a free-kick which resulted in another corner taken by Mahrez. Once again Brentford scrambled it clear only for the Algerian, moments later, to deliver another. All of this had David Raya’s goal resembling a dam City might burst imminently. Yet at the other end Mathias Jensen threatened to do exactly the same to the hosts, as a rare foray ended with a snap-shot that nearly beat Ederson.
Sterling and Stones had replaced Jack Grealish and Kyle Walker, each of whom, according to Guardiola, had been “perfect” on the night out on Sunday, a video clip of which had gone viral and caused the manager to defend them. Mahrez, also present then, had been included in a team that was arguably full strength apart from the missing right-back and the former Aston Villa man.
To reach the half-hour here and not concede is an achievement, though Brentford could be thankful that Cancelo blasted over from close range after Raya had parried a Mahrez cross-shot. This was followed by Phil Foden chipping a ball over traffic for Sterling, who missed narrowly with an acrobatic volley. De Bruyne’s free-kick then found Rúben Dias, who teed up Aymeric Laporte. The centre-back’s chest-down-and-shot was only marginally off-target.
Dias’s next act was to give Ederson a scolding for not claiming the ball when rushing out: City’s captain hoofed clear, and the goalkeeper was informed that next time he should be given a shout. This was instantly forgotten, though, as City took the lead.
A chief plank of Guardiola’s attack-play is a run along an inside channel of the area to panic defences. Sterling provided the threat, Roerslev fouled him, and Darren England awarded a spot-kick. It was the 23rd Premier League penalty Sterling had won, a record. Mahrez followed Saturday’s conversion against Fulham with an eighth consecutive success from the spot since missing against Liverpool four years ago.
City, though, might have entered the dressing room with the scores level after a Stones slip had Rico Henry drawing a sharp save from Ederson.
Brentford were still in the contest but City’s 74.5% first-half possession told the story of their challenge. And when Henry tapped the ball out for a corner, after which Cancelo let fly from 25 yards, it seemed the pattern would continue. The Portuguese’s effort drew Guardiola’s applause. A surge from Stones that evaded Brentford defenders, before he looked to slip in Mahrez, was also deserving of praise. So, too, Foden’s first-time pass to Sterling.
City continued to purr, a whirl of movement in sky blue. Positions were interchanged, the ball swapped between them as if Brentford were training ground mannequins. Yet a slender lead holds no guarantees and suddenly Roerslev was teeing up Frank Onyeka. Only the powder-puff nature of his attempt prevented there being an equalizer.
But disaster struck for Brentford when Raya steered a pass out straight to Sterling. The latter took aim and though the goalkeeper saved, De Bruyne made no mistake. Guardiola did a jig of delight – this, surely, was the win secured.
He spent the remainder of the contest in the technical area to ensure there was no complacency from his men. That may be the only way of City fail to retain their crown. But Guardiola has them so well drilled it seems unlikely.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism