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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Manchester City Stage Thrilling Fightback to Keep Premier League Title Fight in Their Hands

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On 86 minutes Riyad Mahrez had the chance to deliver the Premier League title to Manchester City. He could have effectively ended it there. He could have sent City six points clear and with a goal difference eight better than Liverpool. Instead his penalty kick was saved and so we will probably go to the final day in what has been an extraordinary, compelling race. Will there be another twist?

If City defeat Aston Villa at home next Sunday they will be Premier League champions. But that does not begin to tell the story of this chaotic, draining, roller-coaster of a match in which they played for 45 minutes as if the title was already theirs and then responded, from 2-0 down, as if they realised the enormity of what might be about to unfold. It was a stirring comeback even if it took an own goal to claim the draw although it could have been even more had Mahrez scored. How much will that come to matter?

This was also an incredible farewell for Mark Noble, his last home match as he retires after an 18-year career at West Ham, and with it City risked waving goodbye to the title. If they had one hand on the trophy having destroyed Wolverhampton Wanderers last Wednesday then here they risked letting it slip. Defensively they were stunningly poor, with West Ham spurning chances despite Jarrod Bowen’s brace, but credit to them for their ferocious response after being scolded by Pep Guardiola.

It means that even if Liverpool win their final two games, starting with Tuesday’s visit to Southampton and ending at Anfield against Wolves, they cannot overtake City if they win at the Etihad even if the advantage has been cut from three points to one. But this one could well be going right down to the wire.

In the first-half City were edgy, lethargic even and defensively? Well they were all over the place. It was a high line that was full of all sorts of kinks. And so West Ham set traps. They ceded possession – they probably did not have much choice in that – but soaked it up and were absolutely lethal on the counter-attack.

Both of Bowen’s strikes came from Lukas Fabianski goal-kicks. For the first Pablo Fornals shrewdly and quickly hooked the ball forward after Michail Antonio challenged Fernandinho with Bowen running through. It was Aymeric Laporte who played him onside with Bowen chesting the ball down, rounding Ederson and finishing superbly from a tight angle. He lifted it over Laporte’s desperate goal-line lunge.

Then on half-time it was Tomas Soucek heading on Fabianski’s kick with Antonio lifting the ball through to Bowen. This time it was Oleksandr Zinchenko at fault as he sat back, and once again the finish was outstanding as Bowen ran on, steadied himself and with Fernandinho slow to close him down he shot low, through the defender’s legs and back across Ederson. For the second time the stadium erupted.

On the touchline Guardiola looked stunned. Utterly stunned. City had inevitably dominated but for all that they had not really threatened. They had 78 per cent possession in the opening period, they had 13 shots and they had pushed West Ham back but Fabianski had watched most of the efforts directed at him fly wide while Gabriel Jesus, Jack Grealish and Mahrez struggled to impose themselves.

Read Also: FA Cup Final : Liverpool Beat Chelsea on Penalty Shootout

Grealish responded. City were sent out early for the second-half and it was obvious to see why and within four minutes they claimed a goal back as Rodri headed the ball to Grealish on the edge of the penalty area with his volley ricocheting up off Craig Dawson as he attempted to block, the ball flying beyond Fabianski and high into the net.

They poured forward. Fabianski denied Jesus with his legs and the goalkeeper excelled in stopping Bernardo Silva’s volley before the ball was hacked clear by Kurt Zouma and as the pressure began to grow with Guardiola ditching his long coat and becoming increasingly animated in the technical area.

West Ham needed some respite and City provided it with yet more terrible defending from Laporte and Zinchenko and with Bowen afforded another chance before shooting into the side-netting. And there was more as Fernandinho woefully under-hit a back pass with it running straight to Antonio who miscued awfully his attempt to chip Ederson as the goalkeeper rushed out. What a chance.

City capitalised. After Antonio fouled Laporte, the free-kick was swung across by Mahrez with Vladimir Coufal diving to intervene. Unfortunately for West Ham the ball skimmed off his head and into the corner of the goal. Somehow City were level.

There was a significant touch from a defender at the other end which showed how fine the margins are with Soucek cushioning a header to the irrepressible Bowen whose shot struck Laporte and was diverted wide.

At the other end Jesus burst into the West Ham area and was clearly caught by Dawson. The initial penalty appeals were waved away before referee Anthony Taylor was urged by the VAR to check the pitchside monitor. Mahrez took the spot-kick but Fabianski flung himself to his left to turn it away for a corner. And so it ended in a draw.

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