Can the title race be over this early when one of the chasing pack has Kevin de Bruyne in their ranks? Manchester City’s defence would well and truly have been kaput had they suffered a fifth defeat of the Premier League season before Christmas, to a Leicester City side sitting one place and four points above them at the start of the day.
And this briefly looked as if it would be another chastening afternoon for the champions, who trailed to Jamie Vardy counter-attack after 22 minutes, yet goals from Riyad Mahrez, Ilkay Gundogan and Gabriel Jesus accompanied a De Bruyne masterclass to cut Leicester’s advantage to one point and Liverpool’s to 11.
The leaders’ commitments at the Club World Cup mean they now have a game in hand over their challengers but this result will not go unnoticed by Jurgen Klopp and his players, who know that City’s obituaries have been written prematurely. If Guardiola’s side can regularly replicate this performance in the second half of the season, they will certainly close Liverpool down.
For Leicester, this was another disappointing away day against the top-seven counterparts after defeats at Old Trafford and Anfield. Brendan Rodgers’ players seem to wilt on these occasions, shooting less than usual and struggling to impose themselves on the game. This defeat does not damage their top-four aspirations too much but, even though they remain ahead of City, hopes of a title challenge are receding.
Guardiola had a clear game plan. City’s press has been called into question this season but this time it was relentless, targeting Leicester’s short passing out of defence and forcing errors. Mahrez and De Bruyne looked to particularly be in the mood, with the latter curling low against the upright after a quarter-of-an-hour.
Yet the risk of pressing high is that you are caught out of position and Kyle Walker’s over-exuberance proved costly. Deep in Leicester’s half, he blocked one pass into the feet of Harvey Barnes but was nowhere near the second. Barnes looked along the line and poked through for Vardy, who outstripped Fernandinho and brilliantly lifted the ball over Ederson.
It was Vardy’s 17th of the league campaign already, six more than any other player, and precisely the type of goal that Guardiola will have warned his players against conceding, but any team which looks to take the game to this Leicester side risks being exposed in this precise way.
The raw numbers were still in City’s favour. Leicester had scored with their first attempt on goal whereas City had tested Schmeichel seven times. If Mahrez in particular could continue to win a one-sided battle with left-back Ben Chilwell, then they would find a way back in. It took only eight minutes.
Against his former side, Mahrez chested a long pass on the right-hand touchline, cut inside until minimal pressure from Chilwell and found space for a shot. If not for a slight deflection off Caglar Soyuncu’s ankles, Schmeichel would have had it covered. Instead, the Dane dived hopelessly the wrong way and watched the equaliser zip past him.
And City would be in front at half time. Only Ricardo Pereira knows what he was attempting to do when he crumpled in a heap at Raheem Sterling’s feet inside his own penalty area, not quite tackling Sterling but still making contact. Referee Mike Dean pointed to the spot and, after VAR’s verification of the decision, Gundogan converted.
The visitors had their own claims for a penalty once play re-started, with Barnes felled by Ederson after failing to connect with Vardy’s centre, but Leicester seemed reluctant to appeal as the ball had already run out of play. By the letter of the law, it was probably a foul but even with VAR in place convention ruled.
The game could have been very different had Ederson been penalised but anything other than a City victory would have not reflected the balance of play. De Bruyne especially did not deserve anything but his share of three points. The Belgian may not have followed his brace at the Emirates last Sunday by scoring again, yet this was still an immaculate display by the best player in the country.
De Bruyne set up City’s third, collecting the ball near the halfway line and driving at Soyuncu. The Leicester defender has won many plaudits for his performances since stepping into Harry Maguire’s size 12s but he had no answer to De Bruyne’s sheer athleticism and physicality here, just as he hadn’t for much of the afternoon.
After knocking the ball past Soyuncu, De Bruyne drove towards the by-line and centred for Jesus to slide in at the far post. He had created something out of nothing in seven seconds to ensure that City’s deficit on the leaders would be cut.
11 points is still a significant gap, with Liverpool now possessing a game in hand, but the champions will feel that with De Bruyne in their ranks, anything is still possible.