Manchester City may occupy a strange no man’s land at the moment, with little chance of catching Liverpool and few concerns about finishing outside the top four, but evenings like this at least provide a blueprint for approaching the type of difficult away trips which have helped scupper their defence of the Premier League title.
The champions could have unexpectedly dropped points at Bramall Lane – as they have at Carrow Road, St James’ Park and Molineux already this term – and followed Saturday’s late collapse at home to Crystal Palace with another disappointing result, but substitute Sergio Aguero’s goal midway through the second half beat a valiant Sheffield United.
City just about did enough to deserve all three points but victory seemed far from certain when the excellent Dean Henderson denied Gabriel Jesus from the penalty spot in the first half. United had chances of their own, and were the usual mix of tireless running and fluent transitions that comes with being managed by Chris Wilder, but were ultimately undone.
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A combative but entertaining first half ended goalless, if only because Jesus’ woeful record from the penalty spot and the heroics of Henderson. The on-loan Manchester United goalkeeper first brilliantly denied Raheem Sterling from close range with one hand after a rare Chris Basham error on the half-way line had prompted a City break-away. Nicolas Otamendi’s bicycle kick was pushed out of harm’s way a few minutes later in equally impressive fashion.
But Basham was at fault again towards the close of the half when he tripped Riyad Mahrez inside the penalty area. Jesus took ownership of the ball, stuttered his run-up but saw his attempt parried away. A mad dash for the loose ball began but Henderson’s reactions were quick enough to smother it.
Replays showed he had strayed a yard or so from his goal-line but VAR is not reviewing these incidents in the Premier League – not this season, at least – and instead trusting the assistant referee’s judgement. City can count themselves unlucky in that regard and even more unfortunate to come across Henderson in such form.
Jesus, meanwhile, has now missed all three of the penalties he has taken for club and country this season. His spot-kick scoring record for City since arriving three years ago is four in eight. Across his club and international career, it is four in ten. There has to be a better candidate in Guardiola’s squad when Aguero is not on the pitch.
The remainder of the half was heated. Muhamed Besic had already been cautioned early on for a nip at the heel of the returning Aymeric Laporte, playing for the first time since suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury in August. John Fleck was later cautioned for a late challenge on Fernandinho, who was then himself booked for flying over the top of Oli McBurnie.
The start of the second half was more sedate but came alive after the hour mark. Basham’s dash to the by-line and cut-back allowed substitute Lys Moussett to audaciously back-heel his attempt at goal. It dropped harmlessly into Ederson’s hands. If Moussett had taken a moment he would have noticed Fleck stood central and in space to score.
Pep Guardiola had seen enough. Aguero was introduced for the misfiring Jesus and the champions were leading six minutes later. Even on his quieter evenings, City’s opponents should pay close attention to Kevin De Bruyne. United instead gave him freedom of the right flank, affording him time to slide a low cross for the far post for Aguero to convert. De Bruyne is now the first player of the Premier League era to provide 15 or more assists in three different seasons.
It was a devastatingly simple goal, one Wilder will be frustrated to concede after an otherwise disciplined performance. It was now City’s turn to tighten up and ensure there would be no repeat of the defensive lapses which cost them two points at home against Palace. There was not and a composed, professional performance earned City the points.
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