Manchester City are not perfect after all. VAR can stop them.
Last weekend’s 5-0 demolition of West Ham at London Stadium led to some suggestions the 2019-20 Premier League title race could become a procession, with Pep Guardiola’s side in irrepressible form and Raheem Sterling hitting a hat-trick.
But despite being completely outplayed at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday, Tottenham were able to claim a 2-2 draw that may offer hints as to how this City team, winners of an unprecedented domestic treble last term, can be halted.
It is fair to say City could and probably should have been out of sight with a rampant first-half display, the 2-1 scoreline hardly a fair reflection of their total dominance in the opening 45 minutes.
Kevin De Bruyne ran the game, as he did in spectacular style in that remarkable Champions League quarter-final second leg against the same opposition in April, when VAR also came to the fore in memorable fashion.
But Erik Lamela cancelled out Sterling’s headed opener by converting the only shot Spurs managed before the break, the visitors displaying a clinical edge Guardiola’s men lacked.
City retook the lead before the interval, De Bruyne providing his second assist by laying a low cross on a plate for Sergio Aguero, but Spurs could expose defensive weaknesses in the champions even though they were mainly camped in their own half.
Set-pieces have been City’s soft underbelly throughout Guardiola’s reign but the arrival of Rodri, a club-record signing from Atletico Madrid and a towering presence at the base of midfield, was supposed to help them defend corners better.
— Premier League (@premierleague) August 17, 2019
A mere 19 seconds after his introduction for Harry Winks, though, Lucas Moura rose above Kyle Walker in City’s problem near-post area to flick home the equaliser for Spurs.
It was the first corner the champions had conceded, and they defended it dreadfully. Walker turned to look for someone to blame but it was the right-back who did not properly track the run of Lucas as City’s preferred zonal marking system failed.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side rarely looked like going on to win the match but they managed to keep City out despite some erratic goalkeeping from captain Hugo Lloris, who was making his 300th appearance for the club.
And a flashpoint on the sidelines when Guardiola hauled off Aguero after 65 minutes, the striker replaced by Gabriel Jesus, perhaps indicated everything is not quite rosy in the City garden.
Aguero made his displeasure clear and, while it is never a surprise to see a player unhappy to be withdrawn, the dissent he showed to a clearly annoyed Guardiola was notable. Such rows are typically kept to the dressing room rather than played out in front of the world’s watching media.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) August 17, 2019
Guardiola put the incident down to “emotion” and something of a misunderstanding, but the pair have seemingly had an uneasy relationship. Guardiola often preferred to use Jesus in attack during his first season with City before Aguero’s increased work rate and continued weight of goals convinced his manager he should be first choice.
It was Jesus who forced a late winner only for VAR to rule Aymeric Laporte handled the ball in the build-up to his cool finish. City fans, who had to watch VAR cancel out a late Sterling goal for offside in the European tie between the sides four months ago – a moment that sent Spurs into the semi-finals – could hardly believe it.
In the first half City, could also have easily been given a penalty when Lamela appeared to drag Rodri down in the Spurs box. Guardiola will hope VAR decisions even themselves out over the course of the season.
With an element of fortune, Spurs held out despite allowing the champions 30 shots to their own meagre haul of three, with City now already two points behind last season’s title rivals Liverpool.
That heavy win over West Ham never really proved anything new, but the title race is certainly alive now.
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