Manchester City have to shrug off the body blow of letting a two-goal lead and the chance to win the Premier League title against bitter rivals Manchester United slip to raise themselves for a Champions League rescue mission against Liverpool on Tuesday.
Victory against United would have seen City crowned champions of England for the fifth time, and they looked well on course to do so in the sweetest style in Saturday’s Manchester derby as captain Vincent Kompany and Ilkay Gundogan propelled them into a richly deserved two-goal half-time lead.
However, City’s chances of landing a first ever Champions League crown were likely dealt a fatal blow when they conceded three times in 19 minutes first-half minutes to a rampant Liverpool at Anfield in the first leg last week.
And they were even more porous as United fought back to turn the game around in a 16-minute spell just after half-time as a Paul Pogba double and Chris Smalling’s winner handed United a famous win.
“Contratulations to United. Now we will try, if we are brave enough, to stand up again and focus on Tuesday,” said City manager Pep Guardiola.
With City still boasting a 13-point lead at the top of the Premier League despite their first home league defeat of the season, Guardiola showed his priorities lay with the Champions League before kick-off.
Kevin De Bruyne, City’s leading candidate for player of the year awards, was left on the bench alongside strikers Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero.
– No case for City defence –
However, even their firepower will count for nothing if City defend as they have in losing back-to-back games for the first time this season.
And Guardiola admitted the way his side are built to play on the front foot could leave them exposed to an away goal that will almost certainly seal Liverpool’s place in the last four.
“Today United didn’t shot one time in the first half. Second half they arrive twice and score two goals,” he added.
“It is tough sometimes mentally. We are a young team and a team to create sometimes, not to defend.”
A Pep Guardiola team has suffered back-to-back defeats for the first time in almost 3 years, since with Bayern Munich in May 2015 pic.twitter.com/rYmW3uHtnR— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) April 7, 2018
In a recurring theme of his near two-year reign in charge of City, Guardiola also lamented his side’s inability to take their chances at the other end as Raheem Sterling missed two glorious opportunities to extend City’s lead with the score at 2-0.
However, inspired by Barcelona’s remarkable comeback from a 4-0 first-leg deficit to Paris Saint-Gemrain, Guardiola – a Champions League winner as both a player and a coach at Barcelona – insisted that a remarkable comeback is possible if City are clinical on the night.
“In football anything can happen. It is the first time we lose two games in a row, first time in the season it has happened and now we have to recover, try again, come back to basics and win games,” added Guardiola.
“I tell them we are going to try guys. I was a football player, I know how they feel and how uncomfortable a situation it is. Like all the season I like to be with them and nothing else.”
Provided by AFP Sport
Instead, rivals and neighbours United enjoyed their own crowning glory as they went from chumps to floor the champions-elect.
Goals from Vincent Kompany and Ilkay Gundogan had got the title party started as City took a lead many thought was commanding. Then United, and particularly Paul Pogba, showed up to silence their ‘noisy neighbours’ with three second-half goals and give Jose Mourinho the last laugh on his old sparring partner Pep Guardiola.
“The manager didn’t have to say much at half time as we knew ourselves as players it was a poor performance,” revealed match-winner Chris Smalling afterwards. “He said that we didn’t want to be the clowns standing there watching them get their title.”
Mourinho’s pep talk sparked a comeback that defied belief.
Kompany’s opener typified the characteristics of the player and man that he is after battling injuries, outmuscling Chris Smalling and showing far greater desire to meet Leroy Sane’s left-wing corner. David De Gea had no answer here as the ball rocketed past him.
City took control and if that goal demonstrated their grit, the second reflected their guile.
Sane seized on a weak clearance from De Gea, Gundogan exchanged passes with Raheem Sterling and, with a show of balance and elegance, left Nemanja Matic standing with a clever turn to create space for a poked finish into the corner.
City were cruising yet became careless. Sterling, starting after being left out against Liverpool, was the main culprit, firing over twice when clear and then straight at De Gea.
Gundogan also headed at the United keeper from close range before clipping the angle of post and crossbar with a curling effort.
How City were made to rue those missed opportunities as Pogba and Sanchez came to the fore. Big signings, big games and they proved to be big players.
Ineffective as they were in the first period, they were inspirational after the restart.
Sanchez worked an opening on the right and his cross was chested down perfectly by Ander Herrera into Pogba’s path and he slotted past the advancing Ederson in the 53rd minute.
Two minutes later, United were level. Pogba engineered a break and was in the box to collect a floated Sanchez cross and head home his second.
From being derided for failing to justify his £89 million fee, the Frenchman was deadly. From being a shambles, United shone as they claimed a third in the 69th minute.
Sanchez swung over a left-wing free-kick and Kompany left Smalling this time and the centre-back volleyed in.
14 - David de Gea has conceded 23 league goals this season (excl. OGs), but based on Opta xG data for the shots on target he's faced, the average goalkeeper would've been expected to concede 37 goals. This is the biggest differential by a PL goalkeeper in 2017-18. Match-Winner. pic.twitter.com/SRC8VpsKEQ— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 7, 2018
Stunned, subdued, City stepped up again. Ashley Young, who had escaped an earlier penalty claim for handball, went in strongly on substitute Sergio Aguero and prompted several clashes.
And then came a late charge that almost spared City’s pain with De Gea making an astonishing save to deny Aguero and then Sterling touching onto the post from a couple of yards and seeing the rebound fall to the Spanish keeper to clear.
Manchester celebrated at the end, but it was those in red as Mourinho played down Guardiola’s claim that Pogba had been offered to City in January by his agent Mino Raiola.
“If the accusation from his agent is that he wants to go to other clubs, his price has gone up,” said the United boss. “I’m not interested in if it was Pep or Mino right, I’m not interested in that. Of course, two goals for a midfield player in a big match like this one stays in the memory of the people, especially the fans. He needs that confidence because he knows, I know, he had some performances not at the level of expectation we have from Paul. But he’s improving.”
He added: “It’s an important victory, it’s a good victory, I think deserved, but I don’t see more than that. I was telling before the game we need points to finish top four and to finish second. We won points probably in the most difficult place to get points.
“Next season we have to improve even more, because this season we improved in relation to last season, more points and more victories, more goals scored, less goals conceded, better results against the top five teams, we improved at every level, but it was not enough. That’s why I congratulate Manchester City, because they are going to win the title and deserve to win the title. I hope they win against Tottenham.”
Having lost 3-0 to Liverpool in their Champions League quarter-final first-leg tie last Wednesday, the Etihad outfit blew a two-goal lead – and the chance to clinch the Premier League title – with a 3-2 defeat to second-placed rivals Manchester United.
Guardiola was as stunned as his stars as City capitulated after being dominant. But he said they were ‘professionals’ and have to pick themselves up for the European return with Liverpool on Tuesday.
“We are going to try, if we are brave enough and focused to stand up again on Tuesday.
“I tell them we are going to try guys. I was a football player I know how hard it is how they feel. How uncomfortable it is. I just say like all of the season, I love and like to be with them. Nothing else.
“Of course you have bad moments, and in the last two games when we have bad moments, every time the opponent arrives they score a goal. They shoot four times on target and score three goals. When this happens it is so complicated.
“This is tough mentally. We are a young team. A team to create and not to defend. After that we overcame situations and create chances. The last actions – good save from [David] De Gea and the last action it was unbelievable how we didn’t score the goal. We have the feeling we did absolutely everything. the game was good. But in the that level, in the first half when you have these chances, you have to score goals to finish the game.”
He added: “I am sorry for the fans, but I think they cannot have complaints about what we have done. When I analyse the game it was good. I cannot expect the opponent is not going to do anything.
“For the fans it is tough and maybe we are going to get more credit if we are able to win the Premier League to say how tough it is to win. In November, December everybody said the Premier League is done. But it was a tough, tough fight to keep going every weekend to be focused.”