Manchester City will be the first to admit that it hasn’t been itself lately. That the seven damaging days either side of the Manchester Derby were substandard. And that those seven days – three games, three faulty performances and three losses – were disappointing.
But City’s season, contrary to some opinions, is not a disappointment. And on Saturday, it reminded us why.
It reminded us that three games don’t define nine months. That the reason those three performances were so substandard, so alarming, so disappointing, is that City’s standard is higher than any other Premier League team has ever set it. And that the reason two trophies won’t feel like enough is that City is as good as or better than teams who that have won more.
The Citizens went to Wembley Stadium, fortress of the Premier League’s top team since the turn of the calendar year, and put on a show. They beat Tottenham 3-1 to move within one victory, or one Manchester United loss, of lifting the trophy.
They were met with resistance – forceful resistance – but overpowered it. They very easily could have had more than three goals. But tallies from Gabriel Jesus, Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling were enough. Enough to keep the title party scheduled for next weekend. Enough to keep records within reach.
The first half was frantic. Aside from a few spells of City control, it was a jumpy midfield battle. Both teams were so intent on winning the battle that it became 4-on-4, or even 5-on-5 at times. Fabian Delph would tuck in as an inverted fullback to give City an extra man, but Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen often joined each other into central positions to give Spurs a four.
Both back lines also played as high as possible, compressing the battlefield in the middle of the park. The result was space behind them, and opportunities to play into it when possession changed hands. City got Sterling, Leroy Sane and Jesus running toward goal on at least one occasion each.
That’s how the first and second goals came about:
Tottenham pulled a goal back before halftime, and to be fair to the hosts, Eriksen’s fortunate finish reflected their play over the final 15 minutes of the half. It was up to par.
But City remained on top after the break. Sterling missed a guilt-edged chance or two. Jesus missed one.
Sterling’s errant finishing, though, shouldn’t have been the focus; his ability to get on the end of chance after chance should be. He terrorized Spurs’ high back four. He began on the right wing, but drifted inside to pull Tottenham defenders this way and that. He moved into a central role permanently when Guardiola went to a 3-5-2 midway through the second half.
And he finally got his goal in the 72nd minute to put the result beyond much doubt.
City, even without the suspended Fernandinho, suffocated Tottenham’s attack. If anything, the scoreline didn’t do its supremacy justice.
Neither, to be honest, did a few of the recent losses. City was blitzed and outplayed by Liverpool in leg one of their Champions League matchup. But it created far more than United in the derby defeat, and very nearly did enough over the opening hour of the second leg to get back into the tie. It created more than its opponent in two of the three matches.
Bringing in Saturday’s besting of Tottenham, City created more chances in three of the four games. Over the four games, against its three toughest domestic opponents, City created a combined 8.0 Expected Goals and allowed just 4.7.
City had set a precedent where results almost always fell in line with performances, because the performances were so superior. That’s why the past two weeks have felt like a letdown.
But City’s season hasn’t been a disappointment. Far from it. It’s the best team England has ever seen. It’s a gift to the sport, and one whose influence will be seen and felt throughout the Premier League for years to come. For anybody doubting or forgetting any of that, City sent a timely message at Wembley.
– – – – – – –
More soccer from Yahoo Sports:
• Nine things to know about the Champions League semifinal matchups
• Barcelona’s Champions League collapse was years in the making
• A fan’s oral history of the USMNT’s nightmare in Trinidad
• Why PSG is reportedly in Financial Fair Play trouble