Leeds United fans came to the Etihad Stadium hoping for a miracle. But even Sam Allardyce, a man who deems himself capable of winning a treble were he in Pep Guardiola’s shoes, would have seen getting a result today as near-impossible. His new charges were not destroyed by Guardiola’s title-chasing City. A 2-1 defeat was perhaps more one-sided than it looked but less brutal than recent hammerings by Bournemouth and Liverpool. What the man they call ‘Big Sam’ must do now is compartmentalise the disappointment of this defeat, while nurturing the positive signs from this performance.
Allardyce’s survival bid was always going to be built from the back. For almost 20 minutes, they looked like fairly solid foundations. The new manager had ringed the changes, bringing in Joel Robles to replace the troubled Ilan Meslier and handing Adam Forshaw a first start of the year.
Manuel Akanji sent a header looping over while some miscommunication between Phil Foden and Erling Haaland neutralised a good early Kevin De Bruyne pass. Julian Alvarez pulled a shot over the bar from another ‘KDB’ ball while Rico Lewis’ superb threaded pass saw Haaland crash a shot into Robles.
Just when it looked like Leeds might finally have found some elusive resistance after weeks of defensive leakage, City went ahead. Riyad Mahrez went jinking inside before pulling back for a fine Ilkay Gundogan finish. It was pure City, fast passing interchanges finished with aplomb.
Gundogan found more inspiration when lifting a fine pass over the top for De Bruyne. The Belgian’s improvised reverse-pass found Haaland, who uncharacteristically lost his cool and fired wide.
But Mahrez went back to the well with another run down the right flank and another pull-back for Gundogan. This time the midfielder took a touch to set himself before rifling off another fine finish. It would be unfair to say City had made the first half look easy, but they didn’t look unduly troubled by it either.
The second half started with another reminder that Haaland is in fact a human being. A De Bruyne free kick left the big man from Norway with a free header but he clattered the crossbar. The offside flag spared some blushes, but the striker still didn’t look happy with his efforts.
Mahrez and Gundogan link up again 🔗
Haaland once again faltered when allowed a free header from an Alvarez cross. Robles was given very little to do, able to stand still and collect the powerful but direct attempt.
Allardyce did his best to influence matters with half an hour to go. The former England manager took off Marc Roca and Wilfried Gnonto, replacing them with Sam Greenwood and Rodrigo. It was a proactive switch considering that, for as remote as their chances looked, at 2-0 Leeds still had something to play for.
Haaland’s battle with his own greatness continued when Lewis picked another superb pass in a confident performance. The through ball saw Haaland shift his weight and guide the ball onto the post. Considering he is 12 goals off Dixie Deans’ record, you wonder if the mischievous spirit of the great marksman might have been intervening today.
City looked like having the game all wrapped up when they were awarded a late penalty. City made an unusual concession to sentiment, letting Gundogan take the spot kick in order to try and secure his hat-trick. This uncharacteristic move backfired when the midfielder hit the post.
What looked like just being one of those things almost ended in embarrassment when Rodrigo scored. From cruising to surviving, City’s title bid could have hit the skids then and there. They held on, showing the resolute grit that champions do. But they hadn’t made it easy for themselves, punished as they were for a moment of sentimentality.
Allardyce and Leeds can take solace from the fact it gets easier from here. Newcastle United, West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur won’t be easy pickings, but they lack the ruthless brilliance today’s opposition could boast. With just three games to pull off a great escape, this might be Allardyce’s toughest test yet. But, even in the wake of this defeat, you wouldn’t put it past him.