Crystal Palace welcomed champions Manchester City to Selhurst Park in the ninth round of the Premier League season on Saturday evening.
The Eagles surprised quite a few people by gaining 14 points from the eight games before this one, including a win over Manchester United at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, City haven’t exactly kicked off their title defence the way they’d have wanted to, with defeats away to Norwich City and at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers, as well as a home draw with Tottenham Hotspur, meaning that the unwavering Liverpool entered the round with an eight-point advantage over them.
Palace boss Roy Hodgson was without his first-choice goalkeeper Vicente Guaita, as well as defenders Martin Kelly and Mamadou Sakho, and forward Connor Wickham.
Wayne Hennessey stood between the posts. Gary Cahill and James Tomkins paired up at the back, with Joel Ward and Patrick van Aanholt on the defensive flanks. Luka Milivojevic was there to protect the back four, with Cheikhou Kouyate and James McArthur next to him. Wilfried Zaha and Jeffrey Schlupp supported Jordan Ayew upfront.
Pep Guardiola in the away dugout was without defenders Aymeric Laporte, Nicolas Otamendi and Kyle Walker, but John Stones was back in contention. Winger Leroy Sane remains out with a long-term knee injury and won’t be back before the turn of the year.
The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss chose a 3-5-2 system, an extremely attacking one even according to his standards, with no natural centre-backs in the starting lineup at all. Ederson Moraes was in goal. Fernandinho was the central defender, flanked by Mendy and Joao Cancelo. Rodri anchored the midfield with De Bruyne and Gundogan in more advanced position, and the two Silvas out wide; David on the left, Bernardo on the right. Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus paired up in attack.
The First Half
City opened the game with much possession, as they usually do, pushing the hosts far back. But their first effort came in the seventh minute as a mistake by Milivojevic allowed D. Silva to shoot from the edge of the box – straight at Hennessey.
Nonetheless, the visitors continued in the same rhythm while Palace seemed content with dropping back, defending in numbers and looking for counterattacking opportunities. At the stroke of nine minutes, Schlupp held the ball up well in City’s half and drew a foul from Cancelo. The ball was chipped into the box and it could have been dangerous, but the Eagles made a mess of it and City’s domination continued.
The visitors created a great opportunity in the 15th minute by playing a nice combination down the right and De Bruyne whipped in a low ball across the six yards in his trademark style, but Palace defended well. A cunning shot by B. Silva followed that, but Hennessey was alert.
City were slowly cranking the pressure up, breaking through the opposition lines and entering the box more frequently than before, causing the home side to panic on occasion. Palace had another attempt to charge suddenly through Zaha on the right, but Fernandinho was quick to put the fire out.
The game continued in much the same way as before, but in the 25th minute, Fernandinho went down in need of medical assistance. Guardiola got John Stones to prepare to come on, but there was no need in the end.
In the period that followed, Palace managed to gain more possession and move into City’s half with more determination, and in the 32nd minute they won a free-kick in a great position for a right-footed shooter, some 25 yards out. Milivojevic stepped up and hit the wall, not only wasting a good opportunity but also enabling City to recompose themselves and push his team back again.
However, Palace also seemed more focused towards the end of the half. They were very disciplined in their defending, and the creative spark of Manchester City, usually so hard to deal with, was now being stifled and the champions were forced to move along a wide circle and send crosses in. But after one such cross from the right by B. Silva, Jesus flung himself and headed in off the post, with Tomkins too slow to react and Hennessey unable to save it.
The goal gave the visitors such a boost that they doubled their advantage within two minutes. De Bruyne pulled the ball forward, Jesus and Mendy were involved, and eventually Sterling lifted a beautifully lobbed pass over Tomkins for D. Silva to latch onto at six yards. The Spaniard made no mistake from there.
There was some controversy in the 44th minute as De Bruyne caught Kouyate with a raised foot, and referee Anthony Taylor refused to book the Belgian despite Palace players urging him to, even though he had already booked Milivojevic for much less.
All these moments, the foul and the two goals shortly preceding it, took the sting off the Palace attacks and made them even more toothless than before, and even when City allowed them to move forward, they had no ideas.
The Second Half
The second period started with notable tension, and less than 60 seconds in, Sterling earned a yellow card after a sharp altercation with Ward. Soon after, Palace had a good chance to threaten from a set-piece again, but Milivojevic wasted another free-kick with a poor cross. It was a poor day’s work from the Serbia international.
City had a good chance to increase their lead further through Sterling in the 52nd minute, and even though his low shot from inside the box went just wide of the target, it became clear that the visitors were determined to settle the game beyond doubt as soon as possible. Sterling came close once more just three minutes later, but he missed the target again.
Hodgson’s first move of the game was to replace Schlupp, who simply wasn’t involved in the game at all in the second half, with Andros Townsend.
The game entered a calmer phase at that point, but that suited the visitors fine. They had the lead and took possession of the ball, weaving their passing game in their usual way and searching for gaps in the Palace wall they could possibly exploit. They also played their smart game off the ball, winning it back by forcing fouls from opponents; sometimes even successfully acting them out.
In the 62nd minute, De Bruyne broke into the box and went down after contact with Zaha and VAR was called into action to decide on a possible penalty, but it wasn’t given.
Five minutes later, a great combination between Jesus and Cancelo resulted with the Brazilian taking a shot from a great position inside the box, but Hennessey made a great save which he followed up with another one from B. Silva soon after.
But from the 70th minute on, Palace suddenly sprang into life and pushed City back into their own box. It prompted Hodgson to try and pile on the pressure and Milivojevic made way for Christian Benteke, and the big Belgian almost scored with his first touch of the game as he headed a corner on target, prompting a great save from Ederson.
However, City responded then to the change of pace and they created three great chances in quick succession, but first Hennessey denied Jesus with De Bruyne screaming at the Brazilian for not seeing him free on the far post, and then Sterling made a mess of a great team move by firing far from the target from close range, before De Bruyne’s header hit the post.
But City got what they wanted. They regained dominion and entered the final stage of the game not only with a two-goal lead, but also with a great level of control over the proceedings. With Milivojevic out, Kouyate and McArthur took over the holding role together in a 4-4-2.
The same thing was happening in the last minutes of the second half which happened in the last minutes of the first – Palace were losing their focus and they allowed City to create a few more good chances, but neither Cancelo nor Sterling managed to find the net. With two minutes to go, however, Zaha danced his way into the box and made Ederson work hard to save his shot, with Benteke failing to redirect it into the net from a tight angle on the rebound.
The referee added only three minutes and though Palace tried to make something happen, it was too late.
The defending champions were the better team in this game, that much was clear. Their quality, street-wise approach and desire to win were all clear to be seen, but it still didn’t seem quite the same as the City team which won the last two Premier League titles with a combined total of 198 points.
They were obviously dominant, but it was more that they took advantage of quite a few things going wrong for the home side than anything else. It was certainly strange, the way the Eagles collectively performed in this game. It seemed as if they were awed by the formidable opponent, even though this season had already shown that they can be beaten; even though they beat that same opponent last season.
Be that as it may, Palace remain on 14 points which now leaves them in sixth place, and they will still be happy with that. City have now reduced the gap to league leaders Liverpool to five points, at least until the Merseysiders come to their town to face United on Sunday.
CRYSTAL PALACE: Hennessey 8, Tomkins 6 (86′ Dann N/A), Cahill 6, Ward 6.5, Van Aanholt 6.5, Milivojevic 4 (76′ Benteke 7), Kouyate 6.5, McArthur 6, Schlupp 5.5 (56′ Townsend 7), Zaha 7, Ayew 6.5.
MANCHESTER CITY: Ederson 7.5, Fernandinho 7, Cancelo 7.5, Mendy 6.5, Rodri 7, Gundogan 6.5, De Bruyne 7.5 (90′ Foden N/A), D. Silva 7.5 (80′ Stones N/A), B. Silva 7, Sterling 8, Jesus 7.5.
GOALS: Jesus 39′, D. Silva 41′.
YELLOW CARDS: Milivojevic 13′, Sterling 46′,
REFEREE: Anthony Taylor.
DATE & VENUE: October 19, 2019, Selhurst Park, London.