The Premier League title may well have been decided in the same week as Ashes. After Liverpool faltered in Leicester and Chelsea were accused by Danny Welbeck, Manchester City enter 2022 with a fourth title in five seasons within reach.
The win at Brentford opened the gap to eight at Chelsea and nine at Liverpool with their chasers meeting each other this weekend. With Brentford’s troublesome opposition, City did not close 2021 with a display of the glorious pyrotechnics that won last season’s title and had rattled in 17 goals in their last three games. Phil Foden’s early goal, coming from Kevin De Bruyne’s assist, was all they needed to escape west London with what they came after, a 10th Premier League victory in a row.
On a pitch where Arsenal lost, Liverpool drew 3-3 and Chelsea got a 1-0 win, largely thanks to their goalkeeper, Pep Guardiola did not underestimate Brentford. The restoration of Phil Foden and Jack Grealish’s starting lineup after their pre-Christmas drinks session reflected the strength of City’s options. However, the drafting of Nathan Aké as left-back and the choice of Gabriel Jesus over the fit Riyad Mahrez suggested that January 1 and Arsenal were kept in mind.
Brentford have only been able to win one game a month since September and still finish the year well outside the bottom three. The selections of Yoane Wissa and Frank Onyeka in midfield saw Thomas Frank full of energy over Sergi Canós’ creative talents. Christian Nørgaard, their usual midfielder, was also suspended. Facing a coach Frank had called “the greatest manager of the modern era”, a team was ravaged by injuries rather than illness. Only one player, Vitaly Janelt, is currently on the Covid absence list.
When a chorus for the entire stadium before the match of Hey Jude – also an integral part of City’s home – had expired, the champions dominated ball possession with the revived Kevin De Bruyne in the foreground. They did not explode quite like the 4-0 lead they came into against Leicester on Christmas Day. A heavy surface – with long grass – at Community Stadium, slowed their flow. Jesus’ error check in the 10th minute was by no means the only hint of adverse conditions.
Brentford were not entirely limited to their own half. Onyeka and Mads Sørenson took early potshots before Ederson was forced to a reaction save after Wissa crashed the ball off the face of Rúben Dias. It then required a timely Aké intervention to remove the danger from a corner when Wissa again threatened.
Within seconds of the 16th minute rush, Foden had the ball in the Brentford net. De Bruyne delivered the ball from the right with topspin, in a style that David Beckham patented, and the Foot, onside with millimeters, struck past Álvaro Fernández. VAR offered Brentford no mercy. They had paid the price for pushing too far forward and getting ahead of themselves, and City’s biggest concern was what appeared to be a muscle injury to Ederson after he got a foot in the heavy rough. The Brazilian goalkeeper proved fine to continue, depriving Scott Carson of a chance to shine.
City’s substitutable strikers continued to threaten, the Foot looked far more dangerous than Grealish, while Brentford, prompted by Frank screaming from the sideline, were reduced to the final tackle. Dominic Thompson, about Jesus, delivered the chosen of them. Just before the break, Ivan Toney and Fernandinho fought a running match. Both fell theatrically on the floor, but caught neither the judge’s nor the VAR’s attention.
The second half began with De Bruyne again tee up the Foot, this time for a header that was screwed wide. The Belgian then crashed a shot in with the left, but failed to beat Fernández. The foot managed to head a header, only to be ruled offside. Brentford always withdrew, pushing themselves into errors in the rare cases where they regained possession of the ball.
There was cheering from the home crowd as the ball eventually appeared on the City half as Frank urged his men to push outwards. It seemed to loosen the pressure for a while, only for City to increase it and De Bruyne’s low drive to rattle out of the left post with Fernández beaten. City created half chances, but Guardiola was getting worried on the sidelines. His team dominated ball possession and yet did not enjoy the stress and hassle that Brentford put the opponents through.
That lack of another goal opened the door on a late Brentford counter-attack that got a point and stopped City’s winning streak after nine games, even though the home side looked exhausted in the dying stages, with Thompson pulling up with cramps. Aymeric Laporte had sent the ball into the net, only for another offside decision to reject City. Guardiola seemed reluctant to make use of his bench, leaving Mahrez and Raheem Sterling in the stands. They will be useful in the Emirates, where City can further extend their lead over their now distant chasers.