Manchester City 3 Brighton 0
Manchester City are leaders again, wresting the top berth back from Liverpool, who enjoyed 24 hours at the top before Pep Guardiola’s men showed the relentlessness required in what is now a six-match shoot-out for the title. City diced with entering squeaky posterior time by not scoring until the 53rd minute.
Then, Riyad Mahrez bundled home and the champions could relax. Before nerves had begun to jangle, supporters counting each failed attack against a clock that was ticking ever closer to two dropped points, at least. Not now. And if City beat Watford here on Saturday Liverpool will have to stew overnight on a four-point deficit before their Merseyside derby with Everton at Anfield.
A Mahrez shot featured as City settled quickly into their percussive pass-and-move rhythms. Solly March felled a flying João Cancelo and Kevin De Bruyne floated the free-kick on to Nathan Aké’s head at the far post but Brighton escaped.
After being an unused substitute in Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final loss to Liverpool, the big plus for City was De Bruyne’s inclusion against visitors who arrived in fine form after consecutive wins over Arsenal and Spurs.
Graham Potter could be proud of these results: they took his side 15 points clear of the drop zone and made his team all but mathematically safe. He was less enamoured with how Marc Cucurella hoofed the ball straight out at one point, but the manager still offered encouragement to the left of his three centre-backs.
He would feel only chagrin, however, when a Robert Sánchez chip went across the No 1’s goal straight to a lurking Mahrez as City pressed in numbers. The Algerian drew his foot back to shoot but a Moisés Caicedo slide tackle expertly took the ball and not the man in a situation in which it would have been easy to give away a penalty. City were warming up: Sánchez next flung himself high to punch away a curving De Bruyne parabolas laced with menace.
Brighton, as so many do, hoped to hit City on the break. And they did when March killed a high delivery, tussled with Cancelo and found Pascal Gross in an inside left channel. When the latter crossed, City were in disarray for a moment. But John Stones recovered and his team engineered its own counter, one that, though it foundered when De Bruyne tapped to Mahrez in the area, was a warning to Brighton of how lethal City are from any position.
This was emphasised when Bernardo Silva this time received from the peerless De Bruyne and the Portuguese’s clever lob was tipped away by Sánchez.
City were cruising along in third gear but had no opener to show for their ascendancy on entering the first-half’s closing phase. Balls punted into Brighton’s area by Silva and Cancelo were overhit and Guardiola might have started to think about an interval chat focusing on the need for ruthlessness.
De Bruyne had run the match thus far and a simple stab of the ball from him into Brighton’s area allowed Ilkay Gündogan to hit the ball goalwards, Lewis Dunk’s block saving his team. This was as close as City got and so as the second half began Liverpool remained leaders.
The longer Brighton’s resistance continued the more City might tense up. The crowd sensed the same, which wouldn’t help. Three corners came and went, one of them volleyed wide by Rodri and another returned to De Bruyne who booted the ball straight out.
But suddenly, a surge of relief. De Bruyne – who else? – made a swashbuckling run that drove those in yellow back. The ball came to Mahrez, he finished with the help of a deflection, and City celebrated.
Guardiola had replaced Aké with for Rúben Dias at half-time: an intriguing move considering the Portuguese’s seven-week layoff and the high stakes of the game. The manager was now in arm-waving mode, semaphoring Silva and Ben Foden to pull wide and hectoring Aymeric Laporte.
Soon he could give his customary post-goal lecture. It was directed to Mahrez after Foden’s speculative hit bounced off Enock Mwepu and past Sánchez. Who knows what Guardiola told the Algerian but the bottom line was his men could now relax.
From here this was an exercise in control for City, and it came with a sweet third. The De Bruyne flick that created Silva’s third was sublime, the finish emphatic. The home team had refused to blink. Which of City and Liverpool do first will be defining. – Guardian