MANCHESTER, England — Pressure? What pressure?
Manchester City watched Liverpool take top spot in the Premier League table on Tuesday night and then promptly claimed it back. For now it’s as you were in the title race with six games to go, although Pep Guardiola and his players were reminded by Brighton & Hove Albion that these next four weeks will not be straightforward.
City won 3-0 but during a goalless first half the fans inside the Etihad Stadium grew gradually more anxious. It wasn’t until Phil Foden scored the second with 25 minutes to go that the tension began to dissipate. When Bernardo Silva scored the third on 82 minutes, the home supporters finally got up the courage to chant “champions, champions, champions.”
Time will tell.
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“We were so aggressive, we were patient and we found a goal,” said Guardiola afterwards. “When we arrive after I don’t know how many fixtures we’ve already played, being in the position after the last four years we’ve won three titles is because we’ve done many good things.
“It happened three years ago, we won 14 in a row to be champions. If we win all the games we will be champions.”
Brighton, who arrived after back-to-back wins over Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, haven’t had so much as a draw in this part of Manchester since 1982 but things like that don’t matter when there are titles on the line. Graham Potter’s team were so well organised that City only managed one shot on target during the first half. With each opportunity that came and went the frustrated groans in the stands got louder and louder and more and more televisions in Liverpool flicked over to the football.
But by the time clocked reached 65 minutes it was back to the regular scheduled programming. On 53 minutes, Riyad Mahrez bundled his way through and scored for the 23rd time this season thanks to a deflection off Joel Veltman. The second, scored by Foden 12 minutes later, went in off Enock Mwepu.
Even teams as good as City need a bit of luck sometimes. They might need a bit more here on Saturday, particularly if Watford are as organised and resilient as Brighton. This time City get to put the pressure on Liverpool with Jurgen Klopp’s side not in action until 24 hours later against Everton at Anfield.
“Liverpool are one of the best teams in football history,” added Guardiola. “There are six games left and if we win all the games, we are champions. If we don’t win all the games, Liverpool will be champions.
“We have to win all the games. It’s not necessary to tell that to the players, they feel it. We’re competing with one of the best teams ever.”
After a gruelling stretch of games which, according to Guardiola, saw his players treated for a combined 71 injuries last week they are about to enter another one. After Watford on Saturday, it’s the Champions League semifinal first leg against Real Madrid at the Etihad on Tuesday followed by a trip to Elland Road to face Leeds United four days later and then the return leg in Madrid at the Bernabeu.
The good news for Guardiola — now the fastest manager to reach 250 English top-flight wins — is that Ruben Dias was able to make his comeback from a hamstring injury as a half-time substitute against Brighton while Kevin De Bruyne, injured against Atletico Madrid last week, was brilliant for 83 minutes. City will need everyone — particularly key players like De Bruyne and Dias — if they are going to hold off Liverpool and safely negotiate these next six games while also trying to win the Champions League for the first time in their history.
For now, Guardiola is just happy to be playing in the competition next season.
“It is one of the happiest days as next season we will be in the Champions League,” said Guardiola. “People take it for granted but we have to be in the Champions League. When it happens mathematically it’s because we have done really well. If you ask every club what the target is, it is to qualify for the Champions League. We have done it again. Once we got that it means we did really well so far and now we know exactly what we have to do. The players feel it.”
After a rare three-game spell without a win and Liverpool demolishing Manchester United a day earlier, it would have been easy for City to creak under the pressure. Instead, they held their nerve and began the business end of the season the best possible way. One down, six to go.