Crys­tal swing to ti­tle race as City rocked

Manch­ester City 2 Crys­tal Palace 3

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - PAUL WIL­SON

LIVER­POOL have the Christ­mas present they were look­ing for af­ter Manch­ester City sur­pris­ingly fell to their sec­ond league de­feat in three games. Jür­gen Klopp and his play­ers en­ter the fes­tive pe­riod four points clear of the de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons at the top of the Pre­mier League.

While one point sep­a­rated the fron­trun­ners City could look for­ward to rec­ti­fy­ing the sit­u­a­tion when Liver­pool come here in the new year; now the des­tiny of the ti­tle is math­e­mat­i­cally out of their hands.

City were un­recog­nis­able for large parts of the game and not just be­cause key play­ers were in­jured or rested. They were unimag­i­na­tive go­ing for­ward and sloppy in de­fence, with Kyle Walker hav­ing a game he will want to for­get. That is to take noth­ing away from Crys­tal Palace, who were or­gan­ised and ef­fec­tive at both ends and thor­oughly de­serv­ing of three im­por­tant points.

“When we score three goals away from home I think we can say we de­served it,” said Palace cap­tain Luka Milivo­je­vic. “An­dros Townsend’s goal was amaz­ing.”

City cap­tain Fabian Delph ac­cepted that his side had not been at their best. “Palace were stub­born and or­gan­ised but we started too slowly,” he said. “The ball was not zip­ping about.”

That was cer­tainly true, as the shock of the sea­son took a while to get go­ing, even if a late City goal en­sured a dra­matic fi­nale.

The first half-hour was a test of pa­tience. Palace were con­tent to keep men back, chal­leng­ing the home side to find a way through, while City’s ef­forts to make their wealth of pos­ses­sion count were ham­pered by their be­ing with­out the spark of in­ge­nu­ity that David Silva or Kevin de Bruyne would nor­mally sup­ply.

It was one of those tepid en­coun­ters that needed a goal, though af­ter City fi­nally sup­plied one af­ter 27 min­utes the script took a wholly un­ex­pected twist. Not only did Palace hit back al­most straight away, within nine min­utes of go­ing be­hind they were in the lead af­ter Townsend beat Eder­son with an as­ton­ish­ing vol­ley from 20 yards out.

First things first though. City would not have seen any of that com­ing when Ilkay Gün­do­gan strode through a static de­fence to reach Delph’s cross and beat Vi­cente Guaita with a firm header. The mid­fielder ended up un­op­posed on the six-yard line but had re­mained on­side — the Palace de­fend­ers sim­ply failed to pick up his run.

The visi­tors’ only se­ri­ous threat by that stage had come af­ter six min­utes, when John Stones took on a lit­tle too much in at­tempt­ing to jus­tify his se­lec­tion in mid­field and al­most pre­sented Wil­fried Zaha with an op­por­tu­nity af­ter be­ing caught in pos­ses­sion in his own half.

City could have done with Stones to help out in de­fence when Palace equalised six min­utes af­ter Gün­do­gan’s goal. Zaha got the bet­ter of Aymeric La­porte on the right, then as the ball was trans­ferred across the edge of the area Jef­frey Schlupp found room to get round Walker and make space for a shot past Eder­son.

Be­fore City had a chance to re­ply they were sud­denly be­hind and again there were ques­tions to be asked of the de­fence. A free-kick into the area was not prop­erly cleared and af­ter two weak head­ers in suc­ces­sion from Bernardo Silva and Gün­do­gan, the ball reached Townsend just out­side the area. The winger re­turned it with a spec­tac­u­lar vol­ley into Eder­son’s top-left cor­ner.

“It sat up per­fectly,” the scorer said. “I knew I couldn’t take a touch as City would have been on me and away on the counter.”

Pep Guardi­ola’s re­sponse was to send on Ser­gio Agüero early in the sec­ond half, not for the in­ef­fec­tive Gabriel Je­sus as might have been ex­pected, but for Ni­colás Ota­mendi. That meant Stones was back in his usual po­si­tion in cen­tral de­fence just in time to see Palace ex­tend their lead.

Aaron Wan-Bis­saka took on the de­fence down the right and from his cross Townsend was un­lucky to see his header strike a post. Walker was overzeal­ous in try­ing to clear the re­bound, jump­ing in to a tackle and catch­ing Max Meyer in the area, al­low­ing the re­li­able Milivo­je­vic to score em­phat­i­cally from the spot.

Guardi­ola was left to lament de­fen­sive mis­takes.

“We can­not con­cede the penalty we con­ceded, we have to try and avoid it,” the City man­ager said of his de­fender’s rash chal­lenge on Meyer.

“We had just made some changes and de­cided to play with two strik­ers to try to get back in the game, then straight away we give away a penalty and a third goal.”

“He will learn,” Guardi­ola added. “Foot­ballers do good things and bad things but ev­ery­one else is in­volved too, those at the front as well as at the back. We cre­ated enough chances to win the game, in the first half es­pe­cially.”

That goal prompted De Bruyne’s ar­rival on a res­cue mis­sion for the fi­nal half-hour, with Riyad Mahrez fol­low­ing him on to the pitch a few min­utes later.

Un­til the clos­ing stages the near­est City came to a fight­back was a Leroy Sané free-kick that struck an up­right, though when De Bruyne beat Guaita five min­utes from time with a cross from the right that looped over the keeper’s head into the top cor­ner, the crowd woke up to en­cour­age their side to re­trieve at least a point.

The best chance of City’s fi­nal push came in stop­page-time when what was def­i­nitely a De Bruyne cross found Je­sus on the six-yard line, only for the Brazil­ian to head over.

Crys­tal Palace’s An­dros Townsend strikes the ball to score a won­der vol­ley in his side’s shock vic­tory over Manch­ester City at the Eti­had Sta­dium yes­ter­day. Photo: Oli Scarff

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