Leroy Sané fires Manchester City past United to tip scales in title race | Football
Every season there is always one game in the title race when the team who are going to win the Premier League know it is going to be their year. One game when everything turns in their favour, all the hard work comes together and the supporters can think it is going to be a season to cherish.
For Manchester City, was this that night? It certainly felt that way even if they still have to negotiate a tricky assignment at Burnley on Sunday before closing their season with a home game against Leicester and a trip to Brighton. City have made it 11 league wins in a row and if they can extend that sequence to 14 there will be nothing Liverpool, in second place, can do about it. No wonder there was such jubilation at the final whistle from the players in blue.
Pep Guardiola wanted to emphasise there was still the potential for another late twist. All the same, it was difficult to leave Old Trafford without thinking City had struck a decisive blow courtesy of the second-half goals from Bernardo Silva and the substitute Leroy Sané.
They had won at Old Trafford for the sixth time in eight visits. It was a seventh defeat for Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team in their past nine games, as well as being the first time United have failed to score in three successive games since October 2015, and it means no other away side in the Premier League era can match City’s haul of seven victories at this ground.
Ultimately, the only statistic that really mattered was that the reigning champions had moved a point clear at the 35-game mark. Liverpool had been displaced at the top of the table and that, for United, can be the only consolation on a night when the away end was determined to rub it in. Ole’s at the wheel? “The wheels are coming off,” was one gloating cry, amid all the victory songs from the corner of Old Trafford accommodating City’s supporters.
From that point of view it was certainly an unusual occasion bearing in mind the politics, divisions and sporting enmity that exists, at varying levels, between the two Manchester clubs and the one from Merseyside. Were there United fans feeling compromised and secretly rooting for City in preference to helping Liverpool to their first championship for 29 years? The equivalent, say, of a fat lip rather than a black eye and a blow to the solar plexus?
The answer, undeniably, was yes. Yet the noise inside Old Trafford was of a crowd who wanted to put one over their neighbours and let the rest take care of itself. Solskjær’s players did at least show they understood what it meant to pull on United’s colours and for that alone it was a much improved performance than Sunday’s 4-0 defeat at Everton. That, however, can hardly soothe their disappointment when the second half was such a stark reminder of their shortcomings. This time it boiled down to an imbalance of talent and, for United, facing up to the difficult truth, namely that Guardiola’s men play a style of football that they dearly wish could be their own.
True, City had found it difficult during a first half when United had played as though affronted by the statistic that in 15 of their previous 17 Premier League matches the opposition had run further.
After the break, however, the away side swiftly took control, especially after Fernandinho had gone off with an injury and Sané was brought on to add his pace and penetration to the attack.
It was an adventurous substitution from Guardiola, meaning a tactical switch that involved Raheem Sterling swapping sides, Bernardo Silva taking a more central role and Ilkay Gündogan filling in for Fernandinho as the holding midfielder. Sané slotted in seamlessly and, within three minutes, Silva had drifted inside Luke Shaw to beat David de Gea with a low shot for the opening goal.
The first reaction of the Stretford End was to burst into a song about the 20 times they has seen their team win the title. It was a show of defiance but not one that will hurt this City side. Sergio Agüero skimmed the post with one shot soon afterwards and for the rest of the game we saw the deterioration of a club that once had a midfield quartet of David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs but, here, had Ashley Young, Andreas Pereira, Fred and Shaw filling those positions.
Solskjær had dropped, among others, Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial and Nemanja Matic, experimenting with wing-backs in an experimental 3-4-3 formation, and playing on the counterattack with Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford operating either side of Jesse Lingard.
Rashford, in particular, looked lively but Ederson had a good match in City’s goal whereas De Gea is ending the season strangely out of form. He was slow to go down for City’s first goal and when Sané made it 2-0 it was another occasion when the goalkeeper might have been expected to do better.
It was a classic breakaway from City, starting with Fred losing the ball to Vincent Kompany, and United looked vulnerable as soon as their opponents started streaming forward. Sterling’s pass invited Sané to take aim and draw back that elegant left foot. He had been dangerous since coming off the bench and his angled shot went in off De Gea’s boot at the near post to leave City looking like champions-in-waiting.