By Paul Macdonald at Goodison Park
Winning ugly has had its reputation sullied by baiters of Jose Mourinho in recent weeks, but in order to be champions, it’s almost always a necessity. Manchester United have long been the master of it and at Goodison Park on Saturday Manchester City left flowing football at home to grind out a hugely significant, potentially title-defining victory.
Liverpool have been branded as the neutral’s Premier League choice in recent weeks for the manner in which Brendan Rodgers’ side have dismantled teams, but let’s not forget that City were tearing teams apart long before Liverpool were. Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and countless others were humbled when Manuel Pellegrini’s side were at their free-flowing, formidable best, but playing away at Everton, a place where they have won just once in the league since 1992, didn’t require that kind of performance.
Sometimes being asked to throw bodies in front of shots, defend in your own penalty area and generally endure agony is a necessary evil to get the job done, and City most definitely endured that. And emerged unscathed.
When it has really mattered, City have been able to win. They’ve been able to see out matches that have impeded their rivals. They can win with grace and with grit. For the most part, their 3-2 victory over Everton was achieved with the latter, but that’s what title run-ins are all about. And that’s why, should they see out their remaining two games, City will be worthy champions.
Pep Guardiola and Mourinho are well aware that opinions on football change with such regularity that it’s difficult to keep up. Pellegrini will also remember the praise lavished upon his side as Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and David Silva tore teams to shreds. The Chilean has had to endure criticism since but it’s to the credit of this team that they have remained level-headed and consistent (Sunderland aside) in one of the most unconventional title run-ins in Premier League history.
Everton, for all the conspiracies about easing off to allow City victory given the unthinkable alternative of a Liverpool title win, gave Roberto Martinez everything they had. Ross Barkley, fantastic once again, proved to be a relentless nuisance, and it’s somewhat disappointing that his effortless, unerring curling shot into Joe Hart’s top corner in the opening 10 minutes ultimately meant nothing.
Barkley and his team had City concerned, but Roberto Martinez’s decision to set up with 3-5-2 from the outset, a back three of John Stones, Phil Jagielka (making his first appearance since February) and Antonin Alcaraz allowed Pellegrini’s attacking unit a generous amount of space in key areas.
Aguero greedily exploited this to bring City level, and then it was left to Edin Dzeko to give his team something to defend.
The Bosnian carries a disinterested demeanour at times, but his clinical finishing is as important at this stage of the season to a pretty Samir Nasri pass or a powerful Toure run. His winning goal, a tap-in from six yards. It was a victory that characterises Premier League winners–in-waiting.
City have two home fixtures remaining, against Aston Villa and West Ham. Pellegrini couldn’t have wished for a more straightforward way to edge over the finishing line. And when the dust settles and the season is taken in context, it’ll be afternoons such as today, where a dreadful record and an enterprising, dangerous home side stood against them, that City’s players and fans will look to. Days the title could be won and lost. And the victory was theirs.