Tuesday’s 3-1 triumph over Barcelona on Tuesday night felt a bit like a beer ponging, hip-thrusting, tequila-shotting piss up that gambolled into the early hours and ended with a stay in the bedroom of Miss World. Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough, on the other hand, felt more like the skull-splitting hangover the next day; £500 down and Miss World turns out to be an overweight mother of three with a flatulence problem.
It was meant to be the day we celebrated City scoring four and then cheered returning hero Álvaro Negredo even louder for bagging a late consolation goal. Instead, it was Middlesbrough’s travelling supporters who bounced maniacally when Marten de Roon headed in a 91st minute equaliser, completely mutilating the ‘Champions grind out results’ narrative this report was supposed to go with. Now, with three 1-1 draws in our last three Premier League home games, we find ourselves asking whether City are capable of seeing out these types of fixtures.
And after assembling the team so perfectly against arguably the best team in world football just four days ago, do we dare suggest that Guardiola got his team wrong today? The side have looked at their best this season when Kevin De Bruyne has operated centrally, no doubt about it. But today illustrated just how important Raheem Sterling has been for us, too. His absence – ‘I decided to take a rest,’ explained the manager after the game – meant David Silva and De Bruyne were left tussling for space in the final third, before both seemed to settle on taking turns to step out of the game and onto the flank.
Filling in on the right, Jesús Navas was competent enough but his tendency to cut back slowed the play down and allowed the visitors to get men behind the ball. But competent shouldn’t cut it in this team. Go out there and f***ing ruin your marker, send him home crying wishing he’d never kicked a ball in his life. That’s the level Barcelona are at, and we dicked them on Tuesday. With Aitor Karanka’s side camped in their own half for the first 45 minutes, the game was crying out for a player who would stretch the pitch, take on their man and send balls into the box. Sterling watched the game from home, Leroy Sané from the bitter cold of the bench.
In truth, the team selection wasn’t behind the disappointing result, just the rather dull viewing experience in my opinion. City definitely created enough to win and Sergio Agüero will be livid with himself for skewing a late effort inside the box that really should have put the game to bed, even if he did net his 150th goal for the club to put us ahead just before half time. The Argentine was the recipient of a sublime De Bruyne cross and fired in past the impressive Víctor Valdés. It was a goal City, and Middlesbrough for being so negative, deserved.
But have a go at this team and you’re in with a shot of taking something from the game. Karanka’s men had come away with an admirable point from the Emirates Stadium just one week ago and, perhaps a little embarrassed by their first-half showing, completely altered their approach in the second. Negredo’s 50-yard attempt to catch Claudio Bravo off his line was their first effort on goal, then Stewart Downing almost called the Chilean into action again when his strike swished past the post.
The last 30 minutes saw Boro return to base and Bravo perform laps of the 18-yard-box in a desperate attempt to warm himself up. City, however, could not make their dominance pay. Agüero’s miss following a fine Navas cross was the final indication that things were perhaps not going to end well before George Friend’s deep cross met the head of de Roon in the dying minutes. Gaël Clichy could, and should, have done much more to obstruct the flying Dutchman.
Moments before the deflating equaliser, City supporters may have sat discussing a Champions-like grinded-out result, the type that wins you leagues. But when the final whistle blew condemning us to our third consecutive league home game without a win, the conversation turned to missed chances and defensive frailties. Football is a game of fine margins.