With dogged determination, fierce discipline and exceptional bravery, Town gained an unlikely but thoroughly deserved point against one of the finest teams in Europe on a stiflingly hot Manchester day to improve their chances of survival and give their confidence a much needed boost after the Everton disappointment.
Free scoring City will be provided with a plethora of excuses for not adding to their ton of league goals against their presumed sacrificial and lowly opponents, but this would be to ignore the visitors’ tactical excellence which subdued their undoubted talent and quelled their fluid, deadly style which has seen them score in every home game of their remarkable season.
On paper, Wagner’s selection of all four of the squad’s full backs, with Kongolo utilised as a third centre half, suggested an ultra cautious approach but, in reality, it brought together the imperious Schindler, the ever improving Zanka and Kongolo’s obvious quality in to a more coherent unit, added Hadergjonaj’s energy and talent in to the middle while removing Van La Parra’s propensity for error and irresponsibility and Quaner’s too frequent uncertainty.
Surviving a rather torrid opening ten minutes which saw Silva denied by a good save by Lössl and City playing with a familiar menace punctuating their dominance of early possession, Town settled well and Mounié and Pritchard’s high pressing started to bring the visitors in to the game.
Mooy, who had an excellent first half, put a long range shot just wide before the ferreting Pritchard’s disruptive determination won a free kick in a position ripe for a well delivered back post cross. City were obviously thinking along the same lines and were caught wholly flat footed by a clever ball in to space which Hadergjonaj sprinted on to with great timing. Unfortunately, the Swiss was unable to connect properly and his first time shot was easily saved by Ederson.
It was a clever ploy which seemed to ignite Town’s confidence though they could only look on as De Bruyne curled a shot past Lössl’s right hand post after a great cut back by Sané – the Belgian has scored so many similar goals in his phenomenal season and it was a relief and a surprise to see the ball skim wide. It proved to be his last significant contribution other than a shot straight at Lössl, and, indeed, City’s last golden opportunity other than a mix up in the second half between Lössl and Mounié.
Town’s growing belief and energetic high pressing saw them, remarkably, gain an ascendancy as the half wore on. Pritchard tested Ederson with a good strike which the Brazilian touched round the post for an unproductive corner, Mooy set up Löwe with a sweet lay off which the German rather lashed at to waste an excellent opportunity and the normally fluid Champions were looking a little viscous and forced.
The effort expended to subdue their opponents started to tell as half time approached with Mounié in particular looking heavy legged and the visitors began to retrench in to a deeper defensive block. However, just before the break, Mooy had a perfect opportunity to free Pritchard after winning the ball with City committed forward only to overhit his pass to his own, evident, annoyance.
City created moments of potential danger in and around the area but failed to capitalise with poor final balls – perhaps rattled by the upstarts not sticking to the script, there was a welcome uncertainty to their play and movement and their trademark instinctive style seemed to be largely absent.
Town saw out the half, no doubt relieved to get back to the cool of the dressing room, but an argument could be made that they had created the better chances and hope, while remaining slim and precarious, was far from extinguished.
The second half was a defensive master class from the visitors – nearly capped off with a minor miracle – as Zanka, Schindler and Kongolo combined to thwart the world class talent constantly probing for weakness. In front of them, Hogg came in to his own and provided an unyielding protection which gained vital breathing spaces as Town began to eye a prize.
With Mounié still struggling – it was a little surprising that he reappeared in the second half – Depoitre replaced him on the hour to provide any relief the visitors could find though his lack of game time was apparent for much of his half hour.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Town increasingly relied upon clearing the ball high and long as the fatigue of containing the home side began to take its toll. The home support, who had come to see a procession, became increasingly annoyed at Town players going down with injury and obvious, if understandable, attempts to run down a clock seemingly moving backwards.
With both full backs booked – Löwe for bringing down the underwhelming Sterling to halt a moment of genuine threat – and Depoitre as isolated as his French counterpart had been, Town’s defensive discipline tightened and the three centre halves stepped even further up with unflappable timing, great awareness and tenacious challenges. Kongolo made one on Sané which will be a highlight of the season.
City’s penetration and crossing was marginally, and sometimes wildly, off and with Town players smothering anything more intricate, the champions’ potency receded in the final quarter even if their overwhelming possession of the ball increasingly raised the anxiety levels in the – magnificently loud – visiting support.
4 minutes injury time was indicated (perhaps a little generously to the visitors); rather than spurring on the home side to greater urgency, it afforded Town two situations which could have won the game. Malone, on for the struggling Löwe, robbed Bernardo Silva just inside City’s half and sprinted in to unmanned space and the opportunity to end Town’s relegation worries opened up for the ex-Fulham man only for him to shoot at Ederson rather than take one extra step for a better angle. It should be said that Van La Parra may have been more aware of the opportunity to sprint forward in support rather than standing and admiring Malone’s attempted audacity.
Malone’s chance was reminiscent of Will Griggs’ winner for Wigan in the cup but, sadly, Town had to settle for the sensation of preventing City scoring on home turf for the first time in their hugely impressive season.
Depoitre also found himself in possession in the area with not a great deal of company, but he was unable to bring the ball under control quickly enough to deliver a blow.
The final whistle was delayed by an idiot running on to the pitch but relief came and the visiting fans were able to celebrate an excellent, brave and potentially valuable performance. Sadly, the players had to leave the pitch which was invaded by other idiots (no doubt our own will follow suit if the next 6 days secures our survival) and couldn’t come over to acknowledge the fantastic support.
However slightly tinged by Malone’s missed opportunity, the enormity of the challenge conquered could not be diminished – a fundamentally Championship squad had held a startling array of talent in their own back yard and, at the same time, continued the tradition of not allowing City a home goal since the November mauling of 1987.
There is also, perhaps, a question about Wagner’s insistence on playing often inadequate wide men this season when the 5-4-1 option has been so rarely utilised. The arrival of Pritchard could have been the basis of such a change much earlier, including at home, but any criticism needs to be heavily tempered after a game where he pitted his wits successfully against one of the best managers in the world.
It is to be hoped that the system is used for the final two games – though the next two opponents aren’t on the same level as City, they are likely to be more effective than the champions proved to be in this game. Chelsea, in particular, are in excellent form and they have incentive to win 3 points.
Town’s future, meanwhile, lies in the balance – Tuesday’s shoot out between Southampton and Swansea will provide more certainty about what Town need to achieve (and we can hope that City’s lack of potency was a mere blip as they condemn Southampton to defeat next Sunday).
Whichever way it goes, the performance at City will live long in the memory and will hopefully give the club renewed confidence to write the next chapter of a remarkable story.