Manchester City returned to the top of the Premier League table, restoring the single point lead over Liverpool and, better still for Pep Guardiola’s side, they might have successfully navigated one of their more difficult remaining assignments. Brighton and Hove Albion arrived with a formidable away record, both according to form and across the season as a whole, and held out for the best part of an hour before the bounces went the champions’ way.
Until Riyad Mahrez’s second-half opener, it had threatened to be a nervous night at the Etihad. They all are to an extent at this stage of the season but rarely have the defending champions lack fluency in the manner they did during the first half. A point – or even a third successive away victory – did not look impossible for Graham Potter’s side at that stage City, though, were always the protagonists and, though they perhaps got a little lucky, they made that luck.
Mahrez’s breakthrough only came by way of a deflection – three, in fact – and another guided Phil Foden’s strike from range in for the second. Bernardo Silva’s late strike was cleaner than those it followed but by then, Brighton’s previously stiff resistance had already been broken and the Etihad had long been at ease. By the final whistle, the 3-0 scoreline had made things look comfortable, and the only sour note was possible injury to Nathan Aké.
City’s home matches against the Premier League’s middle order have earned a reputation for being bloodless walkovers, won in spurts of sparkling attacking play between long spells of safe possession. It often feels as though it is just a matter of time before they go ahead. On nights like these, though, when a win is needed to keep pace, the wait for that breakthrough feels a little longer. The crowd’s patience, and the air inside the Etihad, grows a little thinner.
But even before Brighton began to frustrate, there was reason to believe this would not be an especially straightforward evening’s work. Potter’s side knows how to take a result away from the so-called big six. Brighton not only arrived in this part of Manchester on the back of consecutive away wins at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur but having held Liverpool at Anfield too. Only City and Chelsea can say the same.
Guardiola could at least call upon Kevin De Bruyne once again, who returned from needing stitches in his foot as one of six changes from Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final. Brighton, meanwhile, were short two of their most influential players. Yves Bissouma served the first installation of a two-match ban and the match-winner at the new White Hart Lane, Leandro Trossard, was also missing. Potter’s plan would have to be carried out to perfection to come away with at least a point.
And for the first half, it was, give or take a few hairy moments. The hairiest of all came when, having kept the champions quiet for the opening quarter-of-an-hour, Robert Sanchez laid the ball on a plate for Mahrez. The Brighton goalkeeper was standing around 10 yards to the right of his open goalmouth when his shanked clearance fell straight into the Algerian’s feet. Mahrez’s first touch trapped the ball, his second of it should have been a shot, but a moment’s hesitation allowed Moises Caicedo to slide in and steal possession away.
It was the clearest sight of goal that City would have all half and the Etihad crowd began to sense that chances would be few and far between. On one of the few occasions Brighton managed to come forward and enjoy a sustained spell of possession deep in opposition territory, there was winning around the Etihad as City struggled to deal with crosses into the box. When a subsequent counter-attack led by De Bruyne came to nothing, those groans were louder still.
With Bernardo and Ilkay Gundogan both denied before the break, there was palpable tension at half time, exacerbated when a hurt Aké was replaced by Ruben Dias. Everyone connected to City knows that is the nature of this title race and rivalry with Liverpool. When the standard is so impossibly high and the two competitors of such supreme quality, there is no margin for error. There’s a danger of dropping more than just two points. On nights like these, you need the bounces to go your way. And once play summarized, about three of them did.
Brighton were back-tracking, trying to protect themselves against one of the lung-busting midfield bursts that De Bruyne has made his trademark. As the Belgian approached the penalty area, Caicedo practically tried to tie him in a headlock, and the ball ricocheted off the Brighton midfielder and his team-mate Marc Cucurella. Another bounce off Lewis Dunk set up it nicely for Mahrez, who evaded Joel Veltman’s sliding challenge to score.
It was not a pretty goal, certainly not by City’s standards, but it might be remembered as one of the most important ones on their record this season. For a team as meek in attack as Brighton, with only 29 goals to their name all season long, it spelt the end to any hopes of getting a result, despite all their efforts at keeping City quiet. Potter’s side had perhaps not served that slice of misfortune. Another would soon follow and put them two behind.
Foden has had some joy with the short corner routine that led to City’s second, positioning himself on the edge of the area for the pull-back and shot from range, but this time required a sizable deflection off Enock Mwepu to beat Sanchez. The third was a product of counter-pressing, Oleksandr Zinchenko stepped in to intercept a Sanchez pass, De Bruyne turned the ball around the corner for Bernardo to finish first-time. The point advantage had been recovered, the goal difference improved too, but that did not tell the full story.