The title stare-off becomes steelier with each week. Elland Road was at its raucous best and a highly motivated Leeds played well enough to ensure Manchester City rarely neared full stride. Nevertheless the leaders mastered the situation, showing they can win via set pieces when means of higher aesthetic merit eludes them. Rodri and Nathan Aké provided the point with goals in each half, garnished later by Gabriel Jesus’ sixth in three matches and a Fernandinho daisycutter, and Pep Guardiola’s delight at the outcome was obvious. This had been a possible banana skin, with the potential leveler of such a highly charged atmosphere; instead City cruise on and Leeds, who are in genuine danger of going down, must seek more viable routes to safety.
This encounter had an edge from the outset. It needed to, because the heat had been turned up on both teams. City would have expected Liverpool to achieve what was necessary at Newcastle; Leeds might not have banked on Burnley’s turnaround at Watford and began directly above the relegation zone. That did not appear fair reward for 11 points from their previous five games but Jesse Marsch’s players are in a dogfight; their fans knew it and, at kick-off, the noise was deafening.
It should have leapt off the scale within three minutes. City had, naturally, hogged possession but were caught after their own corner was hooked away. João Cancelo, one of five returnees as Guardiola sought a delicate balance before Wednesday’s visit to Real Madrid, slipped in the center circle and suddenly Rodrigo had 60 yards of exposed turf to devour. Even without the pace to see the whites of Ederson’s eyes, there was an opportunity to feed the open Raphinha to his right of him. But he delayed and, by the time he had spotted the chance, Ilkay Gündogan had raced back to block.
The Leeds left-back Junior Firpo was soon booked for a cheap foul but they paid more dearly when his equivalent on the right, Stuart Dallas, committed another. Phil Foden swung over the free-kick and Rodri, running across Kalvin Phillips, glanced at a text book header beyond Illan Meslier. Leeds’ organization was nowhere; they could rue the withdrawal, during the warm-up, of their captain Liam Cooper with an apparent knee injury. Marsch flung his arms in frustration, seemingly at the decision to penalize Dallas; City’s fans let off a flare but the occasion’s early heat risked being extinguished there and then.
To their credit, Leeds managed to maintain it. One devilish cross from Raphinha brought a clash of heads between Aymeric Laporte and Robin Koch, both of whom eventually continued despite the former’s discomfort at taking the heavier impact. Second balls were snapped into, every challenge appreciated from the stands, and for their broad control City found little rhythm.
I cancel cleared Luke Ayling’s cross but Firpo, in space, collected his header. It was a decent position but he shot over; Leeds came no closer before half-time despite bursts of pressure but Pascal Struijk, bailing out an Ayling error to thwart Raheem Sterling, ensured proceedings would retain their intensity. A thudding late challenge by Dallas on Jack Grealish confirmed as much; the Leeds player came off far worse and, clearly in considerable pain, was carried off.
It was a traumatic way to end such a competitive half. Dan James replaced Dallas and Leeds seemed to have cleared their heads well enough upon re-emerging, again restricting the space in which a sometimes uncomfortable-looking City could operate. How frustrating for Marsch and the watching Cooper, then, that they were picked off by another dead ball. This time Foden’s right-sided corner was met beyond the far post by Rúben Dias, rising above two weak challenges; the recalled Aké, who had scored in City’s 7-0 thrashing of these opponents in December, was placed to sweep in from six yards ahead of Struijk and offer Guardiola ample reward for his squad rotation.
City’s celebrations suggested they knew the goal’s importance. This had certainly not been a sure thing but now the acknowledgment that Leeds’ race was run felt universal. Aké departed almost immediately with a knock, having made perhaps his most significant contribution in City’s colours, and from here on it would surely be an extended exercise in game management. Marsch, for his part, was in no mood to dial down: he was booked by Paul Tierney, presumably for words directed to the fourth official.
Raphinha might have set up a thrilling final 15 minutes had Laporte not intervened. Instead Jesus, sent clear by Foden, beat Meslier before Fernandinho had his say with the last kick.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism