Cole Palmer assisted one and scored another within 11 minutes of his return from injury to fire Manchester City U23s to the Premier League 2 title.
It looked like City’s coronation as champions would be delayed as Leeds threatened to spoil their party five minutes in front of a record crowd at Elland Road, but Palmer was the provider and then the scorer in the space of six minutes to turn the game around single -handedly.
It was fitting that the academy’s most well-known graduate returned to help them retain the title they won for the first time last season. But the reality is that the big names have not always been there for the Elite Development Squad this season. They may have returned to help secure the trophy, yet this is a title that proves the strength in depth City have coming through the ranks.
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City only needed a point to seal the title, while Leeds are still not safe from relegation. Yet it was the hosts who looked like the free-scoring title challengers and they secured the lead their brave start served as Mateo Joseph sent a shot under Cieran Slicker.
The home crowd, who came out admirably in their thousands, celebrated like it was a first-team goal, and their new manager Jesse Marsch approved in the directors’ box. But this City side aren’t kept down for long, and they were ahead within six minutes.
First, Palmer set Kayky free on the right, and the Brazilian made no mistake to find the bottom corner and put a dampener on the atmosphere. Minutes later, Kayky returned the favor and sent Palmer into the box for an identical finish from an identical position. Both goals were met with a blanket of silence as Leeds fans saw their big occasion ruined – this was a record crowd for a Premier League 2 fixture with an impressive 21,000 at Elland Road.
Aside from a couple of challenges from Slicker – one outside the box that he was lucky to only see yellow for – City were doing well in keeping Leeds fans quiet. The crowd may have resorted to pantomime mode with their selective booing of various City players and the officials, particularly Slicker, but this will have been a good experience for some of these youngsters who won’t have experienced anything like a partisan home crowd of this scale.
The noisy home fans were getting right behind their side in the second half, treating this like any home game. City did well to keep their heads and eventually silence this record crowd. When Liam Delap finally got the luck his tireless efforts deserved to make it three shortly before full-time, his shot deflecting over the goalkeeper, the fans streamed for the exits. Delap promptly put his finger to his lips from him to silence the exiting crowd even further.
It was a title-winning display of game-management, and the cheers from the minority City contingent were loud and clear at full-time.
With Palmer’s return to the side – his first football for any City side since January 7 – it meant a harsh reality for winger Oscar Bobb at the start, although he replaced Palmer at half-time. The tricky forward has started all but one league game for the EDS, and he came off the bench in the other. As the likes of Palmer, Delap and James McAtee have been injured or called up to the first team, Bobb is one of the mainstays with the academy, returning six goals and 10 assists to earn a new contract.
But City fielded their strongest available team here, and that meant a front three without him in the first half. Palmer’s withdrawal felt pre-planned, giving Bobb a deserved 45 minutes to get City over the line. Another to miss out was captain CJ Egan-Riley, who may be with the first team to cover their defensive injury doubts on Saturday. Even with a title on the line, the teamsheet was a stark reminder that the senior side come first.
Incredibly, this was the first time that Delap, McAtee, Palmer and Edozie had started together all season given their various injury issues and senior commitments. Each has played important roles for the U23s at different stages, but never all at the same time. It’s a credit to the core U23 regulars that they have got to a title-winning position without most of their star players since last season. This might have been an academy all-star line-up to seal the title, but it’s been a full team effort all season to get to this stage.
So while Palmer led them to this victory to seal a second successive title, this was a reminder that their success has been built week-on-week by a new generation of City players who are just as ready to make their names as those involved with the first team. The future is bright for the best academy in the country.
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