LONDON: Written off at times during an unusually erratic season, resurgent Manchester City delivered a resounding statement as they moved to the top of the Premier League with a 3-1 victory at title rivals Arsenal on Wednesday. As City's players celebrated in front of their travelling fans in one corner of the Emirates Stadium at the final whistle, Pep Guardiola's face was wreathed in smiles, and perhaps tinged with a little relief.
Just a few minutes earlier, Guardiola had been punching the air in delight as second half goals from Jack Grealish and Erling Haaland lifted City back to the top of the table. Kevin De Bruyne had given City the lead and even Bukayo Saka's controversial penalty equaliser wasn't enough to shake the champions' equilibrium once they rode Arsenal's first half storm on a rainy night in north London. Having trailed Arsenal by eight points just a month ago, City are now firmly in contention to retain the title.
Arsenal might have a game in hand but it was City who finished a frenetic encounter with all the momentum in the title race. Guardiola has been waiting for this moment as he searched for concrete proof his City stars still had the hunger required to be crowned champions. While there has never been any doubt about the hyper-competitive Guardiola's desire to lift the Premier League trophy for the fifth time in six seasons, it has not always been so clear that his team held the same appetite for success.
Defeats at Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham, as well as a home loss to Brentford and a surprise League Cup exit at Southampton, had given the impression that all was not well in the City camp. Guardiola's curious tactics and his unexpected decision to allow Joao Cancelo to join Bayern Munich on loan in January further added to the sense of a team drifting at a time when Arsenal were revitalised under his former assistant Mikel Arteta. Even Erling Haaland's barrage of goals came with the caveat that the Norway striker's style of play might not be best suited to Guardiola's philosophy.
'The focus was there'
But as the critics sharpened their knives, Guardiola saw signs in training ahead of their seismic showdown at Arsenal that his squad were about to make their point to the doubters. "When we were second in the table, we were always there. But we had the feeling we needed a little more. This week the mood in training, the concentration, the focus were there," Guardiola said. Guardiola admitted his tactics against Arsenal-which included starting midfielder Bernardo Silva at left-back-had to be altered at half-time but it was an attitude change among his players that was just as important. "In the first half Arsenal were better. We were soft. My plan wasn't good," Guardiola said.
"It was not easy to play against them. But we were still in the game, we were focused, and in the end the quality of the players made the difference." Grealish confirmed City had been fully tuned into the task at hand. "We were saying today, honestly. You know you get those games where you speak amongst yourselves, and everyone just seems so concentrated on the game today," Grealish said. "If I'm being honest I thought Arsenal were the better team, but to win titles you've got to come to places like this and win even when you are not at your best."
Even though they are sitting pretty at the top, Guardiola refused to label City as title favorites. "We won against Arsenal at the Emirates. They have one game in hand so I consider they are still top of the league. There are still so many games to play, the Champions League is coming as well," he said. "If we had come here eight or nine points behind and lost it would have been almost over. But we had a chance to be close and we took it. "If you want the crown, fight for it. We still want it." - AFP