A walkover it was not, but Manchester City still got what they wanted.
For the first time in two months, the champions are on top of the Premier League, there courtesy of a hard-fought, but ultimately deserved, victory at Everton.
Aymeric Laporte’s header in first-half stoppage time did the trick, and Gabriel Jesus came off the bench to repeat the trick at the end of the second period. Not pretty, but pretty important.
“Terrible,” was Pep Guardiola’s description of City’s February schedule, but it has started well for his side. Arsenal and now Everton have been seen off, with Liverpool’s advantage eaten up in the space of four days. Suddenly, it is the men from Anfield who must find a response.
This was hardly vintage City, with Guardiola’s men opting for efficiency over outright style. For the 15th time this season, they scored with their first shot on target in a game. Unlike at Newcastle a week ago, it was enough, though as ever they will feel they could and should have been more clinical thereafter. The nervy finish was unnecessary.
Guardiola would never say it – maybe he doesn’t even believe it – but this was a night when only the bottom line mattered. Liverpool’s stutter against West Ham, and before that Leicester, has opened the door and City have pushed more than just their noses through it. With a dozen games remaining, they’re the new bookmakers’ favourites.
Jurgen Klopp’s men still have a game in hand, of course, but it comes at Old Trafford, where they have not won in five years. Klopp will know there needs to be a serious improvement, given his side’s recent performances.
As for City, they can reflect on an odd eight days, punctuated by sloppiness at Newcastle and professionalism at Everton. It’s hard work, retaining the Premier League, but if any team should be capable it’s this one.
The pre-match suggestion here was that City would simply be handed the three points, with Everton desperate to see their Merseyside neighbours denied the title.
Goodison, we were told, would be warm and accommodating, with home fans unsure if they even wanted their side to put up a fight. After a run of three league wins in 12 games, many doubted whether Everton could trouble the champions, whatever the atmosphere.
The reality was different, with Marco Silva’s side full of desire and heart, if not quality. Silva left big players on the bench, including his two leading goalscorers in Richarlison and Gylfi Sigurdsson, but the Toffees’ replacements put a shift in for their manager and their fans. The Premier League’s integrity cannot be questioned.
Unfortunately, Everton’s defending from set-pieces can be, and it was that which cost them here, Laporte left unmarked to meet David Silva’s left-wing free-kick, just as half-time loomed into vision.
It was the 12th goal Everton have conceded from dead balls in the league this season, their 17th overall. You don’t have to look hard to find their Achilles heel.
City were worth their advantage; Laporte had already missed one headed chance, Leroy Sane had gone close and Ilkay Gundogan had hit the bar before they found a way through.
With Everton grafting but crafting very little, it felt like one goal could be enough. The only surprise, in truth, was that the visitors did not put the game to bed long before substitute Jesus headed home in the seventh minute of added time at the end of the second half.
That prompted wild celebrations among the away supporters, who know what a vital win this was. ‘Campione’, they sang, before a chorus of ‘Jurgen’s cracking up’ for good measure.
They should know better. If recent weeks have shown anything, it is that there will be more twists and turns before the end of this race. But as we head to the championship rounds in the Premier League slug-fest, City are on their feet swinging.
What can Liverpool – and let’s not forget Tottenham – muster in response? Get ready for another huge weekend...