Crystal swing to title race as City rocked
Manchester City 2 Crystal Palace 3
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