Football

Manchester City hit four to see off spirited Leeds and maintain edge in title race



There was spirit, there was fight, there were a lot of screwed-up balls of paper, but ultimately nothing that Elland Road threw at Manchester City could prevent the defending champions from securing a comfortable 4-0 victory which returned them to the top of the Premier League table and left Leeds languishing at the other end, now only one place above the relegation zone.

Leeds were bold and boisterous but always second-best. Jesse Marsch’s side were a test for City initially but let themselves down with slack defending on set-pieces for the first two goals, converted by Rodri and Nathan Aké. Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho then helped close the gap to Liverpool’s goal difference. City remain one point clear and are now only one goal short of their rivals on the tiebreaker.

There were periods where Pep Guardiola’s side were far from their sparkling best. The first half was combative, a little ugly and threatened to get out of hand at times as referee Paul Tierney struggled to take control. Throughout the 90 minutes, Jack Grealish was playfully pelted with balls of paper left over from a pre-match ‘Yorkshire’ tifo. It was more than a little disruptive and this was more of a battle for City than the final scoreline suggests.

They survived it, though, save Aké who came off early with a suspected injury ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. But then on paper, this was always likely to be the most awkward away day of City’s run-in. Whereas Wolves are likely to be on the beach and West Ham could be focused on a European final, Leeds are still fighting to survive.

Burnley’s late comeback at Vicarage Road left them fourth-bottom and on the precipice of the relegation zone by kick-off, and the five-point cushion on a troubled Everton did not prevent there from being a heightened tension around Elland Road.

City cannot afford any slip-ups either, of course, and almost paid the price for one after just three minutes. Joao Cancelo – returning to the side after missing the first leg against Real Madrid due to suspension – fell over his own feet in possession while standing inside the centre circle as their furthest defender back. He was fortunate the ball fell for Rodrigo, who lacked the pace required to make the most of a clear run on goal. By the time he got there, Ilkay Gundogan had recovered to block and clear.

If Leeds were to take any kind of result, they needed to take exactly those kinds of chances when offered up on a platter. Their task for the evening was only made more difficult when Rodri put City ahead on a set-piece that was defended poorly, if it was defended at all. Phil Foden’s free-kick from the left met little to no resistance and practically invited his teammate to win a glancing free header that bounced down into the ground and past the stationary Illan Meslier.

A subsequent clash of heads between Robin Koch and Aymeric Laporte delayed play for a good five minutes and was the first example of some questionable officiating. Both Koch and Laporte were permitted to keep playing by Tierney, despite little sign of strict concussion protocols being followed. By that point, Tierney’s laissez-faire approach had already encouraged a fast, aggressive tempo that was bordering on being too fast and too aggressive. It showed little sign of slowing down.

And as against Real Madrid in midweek, that did not especially suit City. Guardiola’s side are usually the masters of killing a game off when they go ahead early but struggled to control an impressive Leeds response. Despite all their usual possession, the momentum of the game was not with the ragged version of the reigning champions at the end of the first half. The aggression and hostility of Leeds’ play was hurting them but Leeds were hurting themselves too.

Predictably, Grealish was the main target – on the pitch and in the stands – but a particularly forceful challenge on English football’s most expensive player left Stuart Dallas requiring a stretcher. The Leeds wing-back appeared to twist his knee while smashing into Grealish’s side and the stoppage meant the first half would extend beyond the 50-minute mark: often a sign that a referee has not kept proceedings under control.

City could be accused of the same. That message was perhaps relayed at half time as when Guardiola’s players re-emerged, they first took the tempo down a notch and then quickly found the second goal that they required. Again, from a set-play, it was all too easy. Foden’s corner was nodded down at the far post by Ruben Dias, with Aké then applying the finish at close range.

(Getty Images)

Bernardo Silva and Fernandinho, both substitutes warming up on the touchline, found themselves on the pitch in celebration. From the scenes in front of the City dugout and Elland Road’s away end, this was clearly an important goal. The mood was a little more sombre minutes later, though, as Aké left the pitch with what looked like a niggle, not long after returning from an ankle problem.

If serious and if Kyle Walker and John Stones do not recover from their issues either, that will leave City with just four senior, recognised defenders available for Madrid. They were all out on the Elland Road pitch and still had a job to do. When Laporte successfully blocked a goal-bound Raphinha shot out for a corner, his prone body was clasped and hugged by both Dias and Cancelo.

Leeds kept pressing for a way back in but only in spurts. Too often, promising counter-attacks came to nothing due to a careless pass. City were not attacking with the same intensity but penetrated on the few occasions they did.

The third was swept in by Jesus after a flowing counter-attack led by Foden, the fourth driven in by Fernandinho in stoppage-time after more questionable Leeds defending. The margin of victory is good for the goal difference column but the win means City remain ahead by the most important margin of all.



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