The Blues could only muster a goalless draw with Stoke City at the Etihad Stadium on a frustrating night for players and fans alike
There will be one positive to come out of Manchester City’s disappointing goalless draw with Stoke City for Pep Guardiola: he won’t be asked if he thinks he can catch Premier League leaders Chelsea again.
Guardiola had become tired of answering that question in recent weeks as his City side dramatically improved their own form and stayed as close to Chelsea as possible, even with the Londoners appearing infallible.
Even if City had won on Wednesday night they would have been eight points behind Chelsea. As it stands now they are 10 behind. They can forget about the title now but chances are they had already done so anyway – Guardiola told his players both publicly and privately to focus on the next game and to ensure they improved their own performances.
That is something they had unquestionably done in recent weeks, with Guardiola finally finding a system which began to get the best out of his players. Raheem Sterling has been in fine form since the start of the season but the emergence of Leroy Sane on the other wing provided the City team with two dangerous wide threats that scored goals and stretched the opposition, providing space for the central players to work their magic.
But Wednesday’s result highlighted some age-old problems. Jesus Navas replaced Sterling, who was rested, on the right-hand side, but if he could stay out wide and stretch the game, he could not replicate his younger team-mate’s quality in possession. Navas was the first man taken off.
It was David Silva who was thrown on and not before time. There is often talk of City scouring the transfer market for Silva’s long-term replacement but he is yet to be found. The latest candidates are Isco and Dele Alli, but whatever the merits of either player, or any other, the new boy will have big boots to fill.
Yaya Toure was magisterial in possession at times in the first half but even those contributions could not match what Silva offers. With Kevin De Bruyne and Sane enduring difficult nights on an individual level, City were always going to struggle.
Sergio Aguero, surprisingly named as captain for the game, showed plenty of endeavour up front – which won’t have gone unnoticed – but barely got a sniff of goal. The midfield behind him was not functioning and it did not help when Kelechi Iheanacho was introduced late on.
Nights like this also expose the burning issue regarding City’s full-backs. To give them their dues, they have not been caught out recently as much as they had been earlier in the season, but going forward Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy do not offer enough, certainly nowhere near the level of the full-backs Guardiola has worked with in recent years.
Barring one fine ball through the lines to Sane from Clichy in the first half, the two Frenchman too often elected for the easy option when in possession, slowing down City’s game. With the midfield not functioning as smoothly as it has done in recent weeks, it is especially noticeable.
Not that anybody should leave the Etihad Stadium overly disappointed – unless they are lamenting the fact they missed the Barcelona game.
No, City have not been in the title race for a long time, and their weaknesses were discovered many months ago.
Guardiola has found a way to get the best out of the players at his disposal – a failure to do so in the autumn cost them the title, not Wednesday’s result – but there will be nights like these when individual shortcomings, or previous mistakes in the transfer market (specifically regarding the full-backs) come back to haunt them.
City will no doubt be disappointed with the result and Guardiola will lament a poor performance – this was not the type of game that City dominated but their luck deserted them.
But this is not the end of the world, far from it. It will refocus minds in the dressing room and remind Guardiola and his superiors what improvements need to be made, regarding both the players who will stay beyond the summer and those who need to be moved on.
There may be more than one positive, after all.