The football may not be so stylish at the moment, but at least there’s still plenty of it on the sidelines. A simple coat would have sufficed, but sporting a trendy blazer/turtle-neck combo, Pep Guardiola was dressed for an occasion far more glamorous than this dead rubber tie between Manchester City and Celtic. The score was 1-1, the points mattered to neither side, but a win would have been nice for the fans who have enjoyed only one win at the Etihad Stadium since the middle of October.
Guardiola had already made 46 changes to his squad whose strengths and weaknesses he still seems to be analysing this season, and named only two starters from the loss to Chelsea in his starting eleven. Willy Caballero made a number of saves Claudio Bravo may (probably would have) flapped at between the sticks, while Tosin Adarabioyo, Pablo Maffeo and Bacary Sagna all gave reasonable performances on their rare starts. It was Kelechi Iheanacho and Pablo Zabaleta who shone brightest in this comparatively gloomy encounter, however; one showing Sergio Agüero how to finish and the other resembling a balding Andrea Pirlo in an unfamiliar midfield role.
Of course, Agüero, who has scored 33 goals in his last 34 Premier League games, doesn’t really need to be shown how to hit the back of net, but there has been criticism directed at the Argentine from those who believe he needs to do more in big games. And while his most notable contribution was to try and kill David Luiz in City’s recent 3-1 loss to Chelsea, suggestions that he ‘is finished’ are completely wide of the mark. Wider, even, than the gap Bravo left for Willian to make it 2-1 on Saturday, and that is f***ing wide, my friends.
But less Bravo and more irony. The irony here is that Kelechi’s goal in Tuesday night’s draw was proper Agüero-esque. Creeping on the shoulder of Jozo Šimunović, the Nigerian sprinted onto İlkay Gündoğan’s sweet through ball and hammered it into the roof of the net. Think Sergio’s left-footed spank at Stamford Bridge in 2013 but a little bit closer to goal.
Personally, I don’t subscribe to the idea that Kelechi fits the system better than Agüero does, but I do believe he has a different skill-set that could help us out in the next few games. Importantly, Kelechi is an accomplished poacher who pounces on whipped crosses like a cat on the wire of a phone charger. Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sané, Raheem Sterling and even Jesús Navas, whose crossing has improved significantly this term, are all capable of slapping in a tasty ball and it’ll be nice to have someone in the box so eager to get on the end of them. If Agüero has any weaknesses at all, converting from crosses is probably one of them.
As for Zabaleta, well apparently there’s a creative side to the rough and tumble action man we’ve known for eight years. Operating as a deep-lying playmaker, or a regista for you tactical boffins out there, Zaba excelled in his new role spraying, rather than sliding, the ball across the pitch and his perfectly-weighted cross into Iheanacho in the first half should have made it 2-1. Fernandinho will most certainly be a bigger miss than Agüero in these next three games, but if Zabaleta has it in him to play like this in the heart of midfield, then perhaps we’ll be able to cope.
It did take a little while for Zabaleta and his brilliant accomplice Gündoğan to begin controlling the game, however. Celtic took an early lead in the fourth minute through City loanee Patrick Roberts, who Gaël Clichy must have forgotten wasn’t on his team. The 19-year-old glided past Clichy into the penalty area and smashed into the bottom corner to give his side the lead. It was a passage of play that may have convinced Guardiola of the winger’s qualities and possibly of Clichy’s inability to cope at this level. Roberts would torment the Frenchman for the remainder of the evening.
Questioned on the player City paid £11m to bring to the club in 2015, Guardiola was complementary: “Good player. His goal was fantastic. We are going to think about [bringing him back] at the end of the season”.
If Roberts can wrestle his way onto the flanks of a squad equipped with the talent of Sterling, Sané, Nolito and Gabriel Jesus, it would be a triumph for English football.