I can picture it now. The eyes squinting, the eyebrows bouncing up and down above them and the lips curving into a cheek-splitting hemisphere on his big moon-head. Listen closely and you can still hear the maniacal laughter of Dimitri Seluk travelling through the night air. Pep Guardiola, visibly delighted with two-goal hero Yaya Touré who returned to the side after six months without action to down Crystal Palace on Saturday, must have had a similar image in his head. The feeling of three points, however, goes some way to numbing the pain Seluk’s smugness inflicts.
It was a bold and unexpected move to name Yaya in the starting line-up. Guardiola had promised that his squad would be Yaya-less until an apology was issued by his camp for an outburst in September. Although the scathing words came from the mouth of his agent, it must be noted that Touré chose to remain silent amid the crossfire and deserved punishment, regardless of how hard he was said to be training. “He must apologise to his team-mates, to the club. If he doesn’t, he won’t play,” said Guardiola, and finally, an apology was issued on the midfielder’s website in November.
The move paid off. City, who had collected just one win from their last four Premier League fixtures before the trip to Selhurst Park, have been guilty of teetering around the box and that’s something the Ivorian just does not do. If there’s even a peek at goal, a big right-boot is being swung at the ball. Yaya may never retrieve the pace he once had and his endurance isn’t at the level it used to be, but in and around the box his intelligence is invaluable. Without him, his side may have been sat in 5th place by the end of the weekend.
Sore from the exploits of international duty, İlkay Gündoğan, David Silva and John Stones were left out of starting line-up. In came Touré, Nolito and Vincent Kompany to bust all team-predictors hopes of correctly guessing a Guardiola XI for the umpteenth time this season. Slightly more predictable, though, was the sight of Kompany trudging off the field and wearing the expression of a man who had just accidentally liked his crush’s Instagram post from 108 weeks ago in the 38th minute. This time, it was an airborne collision with his own goalkeeper Claudio Bravo that blurred his vision and sent him into the treatment room. The guy just can’t buy luck at the moment.
But to the rescue, saving you all from another passive-aggressive piece on Kompany’s injury woes, it was Touré who put us ahead just seconds later. Demanding the ball from Sergio Agüero on the edge of the host’s box, the 33-year-old played a neat one-two with Nolito and saw his effort deflect into the top corner off James Tomkins. In the same position, David Silva (bless him), may have taken at least nine touches, but Yaya is a one-man advertisement agency for the ‘You Don’t Shoot, You Don’t Score’ cliché. Sometimes it’s good to just have a pop.
Half-time substitute Connor Wickham made a real difference in the second period, leading his team’s pressing from the front and forcing City into mistakes. In the 66th minute, it was the 23-year-old who turned Pablo Zabaleta and fired under the legs of Bravo to level things up. Zabaleta was done far too easily and Bravo made a hash of the save, but it was Nicolás Otamendi, a player whose brain seems to flicker on and off like a light bulb in a ghost house, who ultimately left City for dead as he slid past Wilfried Zaha without even so much as stroking the ball or the man. It’s no wonder we’ve kept only one clean sheet in our last 12 games.
A draw would have been a real blow, especially at a time when fellow title contenders Liverpool and Chelsea look to be hitting their stride. And having conceded an injury-time goal against Middlesbrough a fortnight ago that condemned us to our third consecutive 1-1 home draw in the league, another week without three points would mean losing more ground in the title race.
But, with a new chiseled jawline, his cheeks almost clinging to his gums and looking slimmer than ever, Touré again came to the rescue; the likeliest of heroes on a day where he was always going to claim the headlines. Kevin De Bruyne’s corner was smart. It was low, drilled, and it caught Alan Pardew’s defence, who were expected to head a lofted ball clear, unawares. The ball found Touré’s feet and City were into the lead again with seven minutes left to play. The last time Touré scored a goal of similar significance, it was Willy Caballero who was mobbed by his teammates as the Capital One Cup final spot-kick winner celebrated on his lonesome. But here, jumped on by a bunch of lads who looked genuinely delighted to have him back, it was Touré who took the limelight.
Speaking after the game, his manager seemed pleased: “He is a special player. I would say his performance is not down to my decision [to select him], but it’s about his quality. Yaya’s physical condition is better than ever. He’s now a real part of the team again and can help us achieve our targets. We need this kind of player.”
As of this weekend, Manchester City approach the remainder of the season with a new player.