Pep Guardiola justifies Man City tinkering as the Blues march on at Norwich – Stuart Brennan


Pep Guardiola has an uncanny knack of making Manchester City fans nervous, even after five years of unprecedented success.

Blues fans repeat the mantra of “In Pep we trust” – but that often only lasts until the teamsheet drops.

And then the confidence and faith start to get a bit ragged around the edges, and a nervousness descends, a hangover from the old “typical City” days.

“He’s under-cooked the team”, “He’s left too many good players out”, “He needed his strongest team out,” goes the script.

But then, as at Norwich, the chosen XI shows that it has more than enough quality to win the game, and restore the 12-point gap to Liverpool ahead of their jolly Sunday afternoon outing to Burnley.

Raheem Sterling bagged a hat-trick and Phil Foden tapped in the other, as City fans gleefully taunted their city rivals with chants of “Mind the Gap, Man United!”

That gap is now 23 points, remarkable given that the Reds were touted as one of City’s main contenders for the title back in the heady days of August.

The sight of Aymeric Laporte, John Stones, Rodri and Kevin De Bruyne on the bench for this one, while Fernandinho, Nathan Ake, Ilkay Gundogan and Aleks Zinchenko received the manager’s blessing, had more than a few having those moments of doubt and fear.

They should know better, as Raheem Sterling moved neatly into double figures for the season with a sweet opener, and Phil Foden scrambled a second as the Blues turned what was a decent slug-fest for the opening 25 minutes into the usual one-way decisive points win.

It stretched City’s unbeaten run in the league to 15, and teed them up nicely for Tuesday’s trip to play Sporting Lisbon – which neatly explains the fact that some of his prime stars were wrapped in cotton wool for this one.

Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling scores the opening goal against Norwich

Norwich went into the game in their best run of form for some time, getting some bounce from new manager Dean Smith to pick up two wins and a draw from their last three in the league, as well as an eye-opening FA Cup victory at Wolves last week.

They showed why by going toe-to-toe with City – which usually spells danger for just about anyone but Liverpool – and for half an hour we had an end-to-end affair with chances at both ends.

The fact that the Blues created three excellent chances in that spell but were denied by fine margins that meant none of them ended up in the net fed the prevailing mood of City fans on social media that this might be one of those days.

City have had a couple of those at Carrow Road in recent times, not least the horrendous 3-2 defeat in 2019 when Nicolas Otamendi convinced everyone, including Pep Guardiola, that his time at City was up.

Ruben Dias and Kyle Walker had a couple of wobbles which encouraged the Canaries into thinking that a repeat performance might be on the cards, but City were still creating all the chances.

And when Dias strode forward, it was his pass that created the first big opportunity, a lifted pass picking out Riyad Mahrez who smartly fed Bernardo Silva.

With Kevin De Bruyne on the bench, the little Portuguese was the main man in midfield – a role that always seems to inspire him – and he stepped inside on-loan United full back Brandon Williams before curving a shot onto the post.

The not-our-day brigade looked sagely as the ball ricocheted off the woodwork, flashed back across a six-yard box, with white shirts waiting to pounce, and nestled neatly into the grateful arms of Angus Gunn.

Referee Andre Marriner signals that the ball crossed the line as Manchester City’s Phil Foden celebrates his goal against Norwich

The goalkeeper, a former City youngster, was also positioned perfectly when Aleks Zinchenko, always an able deputy for Joao Cancelo, dashed to the byline and with typical intelligence picked out Ilkay Gundogan, only for the header to fly straight into the keeper’s arms again.

Next it was Bernardo’s turn to find space, but his curling cross found Sterling unsighted, the ball skimming under his foot with the goal open a couple of feet out.

Not that Norwich were not live opponents, and City had a lucky escape when Grant Hanley’s header bounced off a post, and with ben Gibson looking lie favorite to snaffle the rebound, Fernandinho showed his 36 years have not dulled the reflexes by sharply intervening and clearing .

Raheem Sterling celebrates scoring Manchester City's opener against Norwich
Raheem Sterling celebrates scoring Manchester City’s opener against Norwich

Play quickly switched to the other end, and this time Sterling’s shot from ten yards, teed up by Zinchenko, saw Gunn save with his legs.

It looked like Gunn might be the story, against the club that sold him for £12million, but next time Sterling got a chance, he made it pay, with a great finish.

When Max Aarons allowed to cross through his legs, and the ball found its way to Sterling, I sensed the opportunity. Carving inside onto his right foot, he curled a gorgeous shot into the far corner—no Gunn heroics this time.

The Blues had taken over the game in the last 20 minutes of the first half, and were knocking the ball around with supreme confidence and competence.

All they needed to ensure another three points was a goal early in the second half – and that’s exactly wt they got.

Gundogan fed Sterling, who raced to the byline and pulled the ball back for Foden, faced by Gunn and two defenders. His first effort by him was unsurprisingly blocked but at the second attempt he turned it over the line, the goalline technology instantly registering the fact it had crossed the line.

Norwich’s brave endeavor was all for never, and now City threatened to put them to the sword.

They added a third when Foden’s cross picked out the head of Dias and he clinically directed it back across goal for Sterling to nod into the empty net.

The comfortable margin allowed Guardiola to introduce youngsters James McAtee, Liam Delap and Kayky in the last 15 minutes, offering a rest to Mahrez, Foden and Bernardo.

All that was left was for Sterling to complete a hat-trick that underlined his unplayability on the day.

It came when Delap was shoved over by Gibson, and ref Andre Marriner pointed to the spot.

Gunn saved the spot-kick but the ball fell nicely for the City man to tap into the empty net.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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