Tottenham have not really done first halves over the past few months. In 14 previous games in all competitions, they had scored only once before the interval. But what was this? Antonio Conte’s team were 2-0 up when the half-time whistle sounded, the Etihad Stadium in a state of uproar, Manchester City’s players departing to jeers, Pep Guardiola looking as if he might combust.
City had needed a response to their derby defeat at Manchester United, to a sequence of two wins in five Premier League matches that had allowed Arsenal to lengthen their stride at the top of the table. Now they really needed one.
Spurs’ goals had been scored at the end of the half by Dejan Kulusevski and Emerson Royal – a startling one-two punch – and they could scent a repeat of their victory here from last season, the one that ignited their successful push for the top four. After all of their recent difficulties, the frustrating results (three league wins in nine), the continuing saga over Conte’s intentions post the end of the season, it was shaping up as another turning point.
Yet Guardiola would get his response. It was Riyad Mahrez who decided that enough was enough. It was time for somebody in sky blue to impose themselves and that somebody was him.
It was not entirely a one-man mission to eviscerate Spurs’s defensive structure, especially the left side of it – manned principally by Ivan Perisic – but it was not far off. In a wild period after the restart, Mahrez was at the heart of City’s first two goals, the ones that restored parity and got the home crowd firmly back onside.
Julian Álvarez scored the first and yes, Erling Haaland, got the second; making everybody forget that his three-game mini-drought had been a pre-match thing. It looked as if it might not be his night; he had snatched at three opportunities in the first half. It is never wise to doubt him.
It was Mahrez who put City in control, his goal for 3-2 just after the hour highlighting his quicksilver quality and, also, Spurs’ defensive meltdown. Rodri knew what he had to do. Get the ball to Mahrez, which he did, drifting a pass out right.
Mahrez shrugged off Perisic’s weak challenge and then slalomed away from Ben Davies. The angle was not favourable but his shot packed too much power, flashing past Hugo Lloris at the near post – the latest bad look for the out-of-form goalkeeper.
Mahrez was not finished and when he went through in stoppage time, one-on-one with Lloris, there was no doubt as to the outcome. The dink was perfect. The chance had followed a long punt forward from Ederson and an error by the Spurs substitute Clément Lenglet. There were simply too many of those from his team during a traumatic second half. Conte would blame the team’s inexperience.
It had been branded a mini-slump and City’s mission was to address it. This kind of language is surely the result of their sky-high standards, Guardiola’s team as victims of their own successes but, at 2-0 down, it was easy to imagine that things were about to go full-blown.
Conte felt his team played better than they did in the corresponding fixture last season – more personality, greater proactivity, causing City problems. It was certainly the case in the first half, while he had cause to lament one astonishing moment on the hour at 2-2 when Kulusevski led a break and crossed low for Perisic. It seemed the wing-back had to score but his shot hit Rico Lewis on a heel and reared up against the angle of post and crossbar.
Guardiola raged at some of Spurs’s challenges in the first half with Pierre-Emile Højbjerg performing the neat trick in the 30th minute of treading on Lewis three times in one action to earn a yellow card. Moments earlier Perisic had cleaned out the City teenager. Cristian Romero was booked for a late one on Manuel Akanji. But Conte could feel that his players were carrying the fight. They made things difficult for City before the interval. And then they struck.
The opening goal was a personal horror show for Ederson, who accepted a back pass from Nathan Aké and then played Rodri into all kinds of trouble. Rodrigo Bentancur was all over the City midfielder, whose attempted pass out wide was more of a tackle. It went straight to Kulusevski, who took a touch before sweeping past Ederson.
City had created half-chances before Spurs’s goals, mainly for Haaland. Eric Dier blocked from Álvarez. Lewis extended Lloris. But Spurs had advertised their threat, with Ake making a saving header in front of Kane from a Perisic cross. Son Heung-min also went close with a header.
City needed a spark, having been a pale imitation of themselves. How Mahrez would provide it. He tricked past Perisic to cross and, after a scramble, Álvarez blasted home. Mahrez’s next move was to head Rodri’s floated ball into the six-yard box across for Haaland. He would not stop there.
Source: The Guardian