A six-figure weekly salary and, suddenly, all this free time on his hands – hopes will be high in Sergio Aguero’s household with regards to what Manchester City’s top scorer might be getting his loved ones for Christmas.
However, manager Pep Guardiola’s hopes of stringing together a plentiful bounty of festive goals were severely dented at the weekend, when the Argentina star recklessly lunged at David Luiz to earn a red card and a four-game ban as City unravelled in defeat to Premier League leaders Chelsea.
Aguero’s presence on the bench for Tuesday’s Champions League Group C dead rubber against Celtic gave 16-year-old City midfielder Phil Foden another reason to pinch himself after being included in the matchday squad, but it also signalled Guardiola’s intent to road-test the attacking options that must serve him for domestic assignments versus Leicester City, Watford, Arsenal and Hull City.
The Catalan’s decision to shelve his normal preference of a lone centre-forward and name Kelechi Iheanacho and Nolito up front in the 1-1 draw added to a sense of this being an audition for the leading role in his festive production.
That will be a pantomime if City’s defence have anything to do with it. The personnel were different to Saturday’s 3-1 reverse but the frailties were all too familiar.
Willy Caballero – in for Claudio Bravo and seemingly with an increased willingness to put himself in the way of opposition shots – chipped a hopeful fourth-minute pass towards Leroy Sane. His execution was lacking and City loanee Patrick Roberts sent a resounding message to his parent club by dancing past Gael Clichy and crashing home.
Iheanacho was similarly emphatic four minutes later as he strode on to Nolito’s throughball and rifled into the top corner.
It was the sort of dead-eyed finishing the 20-year-old has made his calling card since being elevated to City’s first-team squad by Manuel Pellegrini last season.
When Aguero missed two Premier League matches through suspension in September, Iheanacho started and scored in both – one the opener in a Manchester derby win. He could have strengthened his case further for reinstatement but sidefooted wide after Pablo Zabaleta’s cutback, as Celtic reeled from the fourth equaliser they shipped to these opponents this season.
Iheanacho also showed other strings to his bow by orchestrating a move midway through the second half only for Nolito’s celebrations to be cut short by the linesman’s flag.
Indeed, there was enough pleasing interplay from Nolito and Iheanacho to suggest they could function as a pair. Even without Aguero, Guardiola’s options in attack remain plentiful.
Unfortunately for the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss, so do his concerns elsewhere. For the fifth time this season he started with a back three and for the fifth time it did not yield a win.
Clichy endured a particularly torrid time and was fortunate not to be punished for bundling into his tormentor Roberts in the box, while Sane’s deployment at left wing-back is particularly questionable given the young Germany international only appears truly comfortable in the attacking third.
In midfield, Ilkay Gundogan might have stamped his authority to greater effect, with Fernandinho joining Aguero on the naughty step until Boxing Day.
Had Leigh Griffiths or Gary Mackay-Steven taken presentable late chances, Celtic’s spectre would have lingered yet more over City’s tottering form. They had 10 wins from 10 competitive games this season before heading to Parkhead for a 3-3 draw. The subsequent 13 matches have brought only four more victories, with none of them at home, and a solitary clean sheet.
So there is plenty for Guardiola to mull. But, spare a thought for Aguero – every year there is always someone who it is just impossible to buy for.
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