Soccer

It smells like team spirit for Pep Guardiola's Manchester City side

With Manchester City’s substitutes and staff screaming encouragement, the away bench at Selhurst Park resembled an away end – it smells like team spirit for Pep Guardiola’s side

  • Manchester City beat Crystal Palace 2-0 on Saturday to all but secure the title 
  • Guardiola made eight changes ahead of the Champions League semi second leg
  • But his backup players proved their quality with a calm, dominant performance
  • And the exhortations from the sidelines prove the Spaniard has a squad united 

Probably the best way to explain the mood around Manchester City at the moment is that it felt as if they were playing in front of supporters. The away bench — rows and rows of substitutes and staff — resembled an away end.

City were loud at Crystal Palace. The entourage, made up of Pep Guardiola’s best players sitting this out ahead of Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday, did not look like a football team. 

More a group of mates down in London for the day who would not have appeared out of place spending the afternoon at Croydon’s outdoor street food and drink haven, Boxpark. Here lived a free, carnival spirit. 

Manchester City beat Crystal Palace 2-0 on Saturday to all but secure the Premier League title

Departing Argentine striker Sergio Aguero (second right) scored a superb second-half goal

The City players and staff’s encouragement from the sidelines prove they are a united squad

Whether it was Guardiola mimicking tipping his cap to the Frenchman Benjamin Mendy and shouting ‘chapeau, chapeau’ after his assist for Sergio Aguero. Or Bernardo Silva impishly patrolling the touchline, mask on and not really warming up, grinning and laughing.

Or one player squealing as Raheem Sterling thundered Palace’s near post from an impossible angle. Or the subs being told off by the fourth official for messing about with stray footballs. This is all very fun for them. 

A third Premier League title in four seasons is now effectively rubber-stamped and the togetherness felt like the takeaway from a game City turned up to knowing they would win. As Aguero’s goal crashed in, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Silva and Phil Foden’s celebrations from the stands almost saw the trio collapse over a rail.

Fans would label it ‘limbs’, the act of unbridled emotion, arms and legs everywhere. ‘Everybody knows we are living something special,’ Guardiola said. ‘Three times in four years, in this country, is something more than remarkable.

‘Eight players didn’t play in Paris last week and they were sad. Happy for the team, but they were sad for not playing. The best way to answer me — to prove me wrong and make me feel guilty — is on the grass.

‘These players talk on the grass. That is why we are on 80 points, in the semi-finals of the Champions League, have won four Carabao Cups in a row. The incredible records and numbers. Why? Because they speak on the grass.’

Guardiola’s rotation policy is often discussed and the manager knows two things: that he is lucky to possess such depth and that without tinkering weekly, City could not have challenged for all four trophies this year.

‘They know I am a guy who rotates the players a lot,’ he said. ‘And when one guy wants to play always, always, always, maybe it’s not the right place to be.’

For the most part, he has kept a lid on player disappointment — and that has been noted by his peers. Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson said: ‘We must congratulate City, not least in keeping them all on board as Pep has done because it’s not easy to deal with 25 players.’

The back-up acts excelled. Mendy was exceptional, just as he had been away at Leicester City a few weeks back. Ferran Torres scored the second during a two-minute blitz that took the game away from a resourceful Palace.

Guardiola praised forward Ferran Torres (right) as having changed from a little boy to a man

‘Ferran has scored a lot of goals but this was the first game I saw that he could handle what it means to play the physicality of the Premier League,’ Guardiola added. ‘He was a little boy before and now he is a man.’

A Torres intervention was what truly sparked City’s bench into action seconds before half-time. Wilfried Zaha galloped down Palace’s left as they broke menacingly but Torres halted him with a perfect sliding tackle, the sort for which he is not exactly renowned. 

The bench roared, up on their feet in unison to applaud the effort. City went in goalless at half-time, buoyed by the Torres tackle, and had won the game by the hour. Maybe the two things are related.

The sterner customers on a watching brief, the likes of Ruben Dias and Kevin De Bruyne, applauded that challenge with vigour. Neither was required and both knew that heading down to the capital. A good day off indeed as they rest up before meeting Neymar and Kylian Mbappe again.

‘We have to do our job at the Etihad and make an almost perfect performance to reach the final,’ Guardiola said. ‘We are playing a team with the most talented players up front. It’s not just one, not just two, it’s three — even three-and-a-half.

‘They can win games in a single action. We have to play as a team with an incredible mentality to play to win. We have to be aggressive. Over many years the commitment has been there, to be in a position of winning all these titles.’

Match Facts: Manchester City vs Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park 

Crystal Palace (4-5-1): Guaita 6; Ward 6, Kouyate 6, Dann 7, Mitchell 7; Townsend 6.5 (Ayew 82min), Milivojevic 6, Riedewald 6 (Schlupp 59, 6), Eze 6.5, Zaha 6; Benteke 6.5 (Mateta 67, 6).

Subs not used: Butland, van Aanholt, McCarthy, Batshuayi, Cahill, Kelly. 

Booked: Kouyate, Milivojevic.

Manager: Roy Hodgson 6.

Manchester City (4-2-4): Ederson 7; Cancelo 6, Ake 7, Laporte 7.5, Mendy 7.5; Rodri 7, Fernandinho 7.5 (Zinchenko 67, 6); Torres 8, Jesus 7, Aguero 7, Sterling 7. 

Subs not used: Steffen, Walker, Dias, Gundogan, De Bruyne, Silva, Mahrez, Foden.

Scorers: Aguero 57, Torres 59.  

Manager: Pep Guardiola 7. 

Referee: David Coote 6. 




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