There was more than a sense of anxiety around the Etihad on Wednesday as Manchester City were frustrated by Brighton for 53 minutes on Wednesday.
City had all of the possession, but could find no way through the Seagulls’ backline – and when they did, Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan wasted good opportunities. The Etihad crowd weren’t getting retless, but they weren’t sitting comfortably either. Their response to City’s possession was to raise their voices in support, even if you could equally hear exasperated groans whenever a chance was lost.
The roar when Mahrez scored, then, on 53 minutes, was louder than most at the Etihad all season. And when Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva sealed the three points, fans showed their appreciation for a hard-fought win. ‘Champions’ even got an airing at one point.
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Asked about the role of the fans in the win, Pep Guardiola gave a telling answer after the game.
“I would say the fans were close to us, sometimes more quiet than today,” he said, moving his thoughts onto City’s defensive qualities and their recent fixture schedule.
“Today I have a feeling they saw the hunger we had without the ball. The defense, like an NBA final, the defense will help us to fight for the title. The way we defend is good but we were so dynamic and so aggressive, the wat we defend without the ball, we could not do it for many reasons.
“I said before the mentally fatigue and tired int he last games. If you want to make this step you have to come back in these times. The defense is going to help us and today they were amazing. That’s why the people in the stands see when the team is alive and press. The transitions with Kevin, Bernardo, Phil, they do it better.”
Guardiola is always keen to praise City fans when they have actively contributed to a performance. He’s been caught out with comments about the Etihad crowd in the past, so he’s always careful when that subject arises. His praise of him on Wednesday was warranted, as the nervous Blues’ support always stayed with the team even when it looked like a long night was in store.
That will be needed for the final six games of the season – as well as next week’s Champions League clash with Real Madrid. Even if Guardiola has earmarked nothing less than six wins from six to win the Premier League, it won’t be an easy stroll to the title. He needs every ounce of help from the stands.
Guardiola’s comments about his defense and mental fatigue are also significant. City got positive results in the league and in Europe from their double-headers with Atletico Madrid and Liverpool, but have picked up at least three new defensive injuries, and have had to rest the majority of their key men at least eleven. It’s clear Guardiola feels that enforced rotation is disrupting the rhythm of his side slightly, even if he has no alternative.
The manager declared Liverpool as one of the best teams in history, and Real Madrid are one of the best the Champions League has ever seen. To end the season with silverware will take an almighty effort.
So City will need their supporters to back them even when the defenses are providing hard to beat. And he will need his full squad to give everything in every game. It’s clear Guardiola knows what is needed to win the title, plus maybe the Champions League, but he’s experienced enough to know they could also end up trophyless this season.
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