Pep Guardiola had one person in mind when he walked onto the pitch at Selhurst Park full-time from a goalless draw with Crystal Palace.
He rode past his Manchester City side, who had failed to find the net despite dominating the previous 90 minutes to leave south London with a 0-0 draw that opens the door firmly for Liverpool in the running. to the Premier League title.
He walked past referee Martin Atkinson after a game that was thankfully free of any officiating controversy.
Guardiola went straight to palace keeper Vicente Guaita. A long and heated exchange ensued, but the City boss would not elaborate on what was said beyond simply ‘congratulating him on an incredible effort and his saves’.
City scored Palace’s goal with 18 shots. Combined with the 14 they amassed in the reverse game loss in October, a tally of 32 is the most for a top-flight team this season without finding the net.
Before praising Guaita, Guardiola admitted he had other players on his mind: specifically making a substitution to refresh a front line that was shooting blanks.
“I was thinking about it, Gabriel [Jesus]gundo [Ilkay Gundogan]but the guys were playing well,” Guardiola said. “The game was at a high pace and I decided to continue with these guys.
As things stand, Guardiola didn’t make any substitutions in a game City needed to win to maintain some breathing space over Liverpool, with the incumbent’s lead now at four points. It’s not the first time: since English football resumed after an enforced break due to COVID-19 in June 2020, Guardiola has opted not to make any substitutions on four occasions. No other manager has done so more than twice in the same period.
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It was, however, the first time this season that he decided not to intervene in a match his team had failed to win. Raheem Sterling, Jesus and Gundogan rarely warmed up, even when the three points started to fade. If he was really thinking about changing things, it never seemed particularly close to becoming a reality. The outcome inevitably shapes judgments about such decision-making, but it felt strange immediately afterwards.
Guardiola was right to say his side were playing well, monopolizing the ball in typical fashion – albeit lacking the total control that City often display, allowing Palace to repeatedly threaten in counter-attacks.
Conor Gallagher epitomized Palace’s work ethic. Relentlessly chasing City as they searched relentlessly for the opener, the 22-year-old covered 12.5km – the most distance of any Palace player in a Premier League game this season.
Gallagher usually tops that stat – he did so in 15 of his 25 league starts during his season-long loan spell at Chelsea.
But Palace’s goal was never under constant threat. Guaita had just four shots on target to save, and only one of them was particularly memorable: a reflex second-half save from Riyad Mahrez after Kevin De Bruyne hit the post in the 57th minute.
Despite Guardiola’s full-time reaction, it was not a virtuoso performance worthy of Guardiola’s particular praise. Opposite number Patrick Vieira made the point by focusing on how his goalkeeper ‘managed the game’ essentially wasting time to ease the pressure on his back line, allowing them to fill their lungs again after an almost endless night chasing the ball.
City have dropped points here because of their own profligacy. Bernardo Silva was the biggest culprit, missing the visitors’ two best chances: miscontrolling with the goal at his mercy just 14 minutes into the game and later slipping a second-half shot from Jack Grealish’s cross in the 71st minute.
Joao Cancelo hit the post shortly before the half hour mark, and Aymeric Laporte squirmed uncomfortably seeing the two chances that came his way.
The recriminations can’t be far-reaching for a City side who have created plenty but failed to score for the first time in 19 games since losing to Palace at the Etihad Stadium nearly five months ago.
They have given Liverpool a huge boost for Wednesday’s trip to Arsenal, knowing victory there in their current fixture will take them a point behind City with nine games apiece to play. Liverpool’s visit to Man City on April 10 has just gotten even bigger and Guardiola will be happy that the title remains in their hands as much as it does for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
But it’s tempting on nights like this – rare as they are – to imagine what might have happened here had City landed Harry Kane or Cristiano Ronaldo from Tottenham Hotspur last summer. After all, despite their overall consistency, there’s a reason they’re heavily linked with a move for Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland at the end of the season.
And should they miss out on another Premier League crown at Liverpool this season, the inquiry will not focus on their defence, which is still the best in the division and the bedrock of last season’s title win.
“I don’t know if a striker, as you said, is in line for next season, we would win the game because I don’t know,” Guardiola said.
He is right, of course. But thanks to Guardiola’s passivity here, we also won’t know if City would have won using all the options at their disposal.