There’s this running joke about EA Sports FIFA, about one of the reasons why the video game is unrealistic is how Manchester City’s Etihad stadium is always at capacity in it. That’s a thinly-veiled jibe at City, that for all their new-found wealth, and even before it, they’ve managed to get Eastlands at maximum since leaving Maine Road in 2003, and that’s not without question, the stadiums are barely full, particularly in Champions League games.
But on Thursday, while the stadium wasn’t at capacity, it was a still season record of over 54 thousand, as fans came in numbers to see the Premier League champions cut the gap to Liverpool at the top to four points. Liverpool themselves have a reputation for their terrific home support, the Anfield crowd capable of putting opposition on the back foot even before kick-off.
But while City’s fans were nowhere such level on Thursday, and will probably never be a Kop level, they were very much en vogue, particularly in the first half, particularly in the first half-hour. Every City touch was roared, every Liverpool touch booed, as the Reds, for the first 10 minutes at least, looked panicky. It was the kind of atmosphere the Etihad crowd didn’t produce regularly, the kind of noise that has probably only ever been evident in the first half against Manchester United last April.
Things did very much simmer down afterwards, and in truth, the home crowd became edgy and rather panicky as the game wore to its close, but that opening aggression was needed, and was also evident on the pitch from the players. Prior to Sergio Aguero blasting them in front five minutes before halftime, City had barely created anything up front, and in quick succession were an inch, and 1.2 centimetres away from going behind. But there was belligerence in the side, a show of bite, grit, mettle and what not.
City, particularly under Pep Guardiola, have shown themselves to be entertainers, and their superiority through that is almost unquestionable, but they’ve never looked like a side ready to get down in the mud, like a side prepared to roll with the punches and then give mighty blows of their own. When pressed, they cower. When rushed, they seem spooked. But not on this occasion; by the time Aguero had given them the lead, City had laid a mark on proceedings in physical terms, Danilo had barged into Sadio Mane, Raheem Sterling also didn’t shy in making himself known to Andy Robertson, and Vincent Kompany was rather lucky not to be sent off for his lunge on Mohammed Salah.
City had signalled their intent to go down and dirty if need be, even the Silvas, David and Bernardo, needed some form of restraint and caution, and when Aguero gave them the lead, the Argentine forward smashing at a corner flag in celebration was telling. Liverpool found their way back into the game through Roberto Firmino, but via Leroy Sane City would regain their advantage, and having got it, sought about to protect it.
Therein lay another show of mettle and fight, a backs-to-the-wall showing at the back, where anywhere would do, any contact was enough, so long as the ball didn’t end up in the back of the net. Guardiola has rarely seen his teams in title races, of the seven league titles he’s won, the closest he was run was with Barcelona in 2009/10, which got to the final day, and even that saw them hit 99 points. The season when his team were chasing, in 2011/12, they succumbed to Real Madrid. Guardiola has never had to do things from the back foot, and has never had to make things ugly to triumph.
This season, he looks like he may have to. City, meanwhile, are no strangers to the scrap, they won the league in 2013/14 despite topping the table for only a total of 14 days, they won the league in 2012 despite being eight points behind with six games left, and of course, needing two goals in the final three minutes of the final game. On Thursday they showed that they have that bottle, that when shove turns to full-blown barge, they’ll still stand.