Game on. Pep Guardiola had warned earlier this month that Manchester City were enjoying a “fake lead” at the top and now their cushion will be cut to a single point if Liverpool win at Arsenal on Wednesday. The race is on and, should City blow it, they may look back on this as the occasion things turned.
This was a rare off-night against an intelligent, punchy Crystal Palace side; City had the chances to win, especially during a purple patch in the first half, but came away goalless from an away fixture for the first time since the opening weekend defeat at Tottenham. It may cost them but anyone wanting a genuine contest over the season’s remainder will now feel enriched.
The hope that Jürgen Klopp, presumably a more than interested spectator, could hold at the outset was that Palace had done a number on City before. Their 2-0 win at the Etihad in October, helped by Aymeric Laporte’s red card halfway through, was one of the last times the champions showed any significant weakness: City had only dropped five points since then, breeding little hope that lightning might strike twice.
Nonetheless Palace showed an appetite to ask questions with some fierce pressing in the opening moments, led in particular by Conor Gallagher. It was the snappy Gallagher who, 10 minutes in, dispossessed Laporte and broke into space but overhit his pass left to an open Wilfried Zaha. City had probed in their standard fashion until then but, aside from a sublime first-time pass from Phil Foden that almost released Bernardo Silva, had not overly threatened to lock proceedings down early on.
Instead they continued to struggle when harried. Zaha forced Kyle Walker into an error that allowed Jean-Philippe Mateta to feed Michael Olise, whose cross-shot with the outside of his left foot bent beyond the far post. Mateta had a shimmying run to the byline thwarted and another break, assisted by dizzying skill from Olise, was curtailed when he slipped. By the half’s midway stage, City’s only genuine opportunity had come from a Palace mistake: Vicente Guaita was fortunate, after spilling Kevin De Bruyne’s straightforward drive, to see Silva take too heavy a touch as he attempted to guide the loose ball past him.
Guaita was more convincing when, following a signature chop inside and shot from Riyad Mahrez, he gathered comfortably. In the 26th minute his reactions were tested when De Bruyne stuck out a foot, attempting to guide João Cancelo’s perceptive pass over him. An outstretched hand flipped the ball over at close quarters but City, having rocked at times, were beginning to gain regular ground.
They were within an upright’s width of making it count when Cancelo, taking aim from 25 yards after a corner had been worked out to him, crashed a fierce strike against Guaita’s right post. A more delicate connection from Laporte would have sent the rebound into the vacant goal but, as the ball sat up and arrived at pace, he skied over to jeers. It was still an excellent chance and Mahrez was next to receive a presentable opportunity, seeing Jack Grealish’s cutback reach him in the kind of position he enjoys but shooting straight at Guaita.
A City opener was beginning to look inevitable. Palace were listing but regained some stability before the interval, Zaha shooting wide and Joachim Andersen teasing a delivery beyond lurking teammates. Mahrez shot wide and Klopp had cause for genuine optimism at half-time.
Palace re-emerged with the same vim they showed early on. Six minutes into the second period, following a spell of pressure, Cheikhou Kouyaté glanced wide from in front of goal after Marc Guéhi’s header had given him the chance. Mateta, behind his right shoulder, might have been better positioned to score. Gallagher, effervescent in and out of possession, then took Palace 60 yards up the field and drew a foul from Grealish, who was booked.
City had not got going, although a marginally offside De Bruyne struck the far post from an angle when they did construct something incisive. Guaita’s stupendous save from the rebound, blasted by Mahrez, proved immaterial. Patrick Vieira freshened up his front line, introducing Odsonne Édouard and Jordan Ayew for the tireless Matete and Olise; Palace remained full of running and, as the latter stages approached, looked perfectly worthy of the scoreline.
Grealish, near the byline, gave Silva a chance to alter it with a perfectly-delivered centre but his teammate could not get adequate purchase. With nine minutes left, Édouard briefly appeared to have been released by Kouyaté but could not get a clean shot off; Zaha then warmed Ederson’s midriff as City left gaps with the minutes ebbing. Gallagher had a half-chance to win it in added time and, at the end, Liverpool wore the biggest grins of all.