Manchester City returned to Premier League action today with a convincing 3-1 victory at Leeds United to stay within touching distance of pacesetters Arsenal.
Despite making numerous squad alterations, Pep Guardiola led the back-to-back Premier League champions to a vital win at Elland Road as Erling Braut Haaland stole the show again.
Norway did not participate in the Qatar World Cup, but the talismanic striker has not lost his touch, even though he spent six weeks without playing competitive football.
However, Man City needed others to unlock Leeds’ stubborn defence, led by a high-performing goalkeeper Illan Meslier, who performed at the highest level to keep his team in the game in the first half.
The highly-rated Frenchman was called into action with less than two minutes on the clock as he pulled off a decent save to deny Haaland in a one-on-one situation.
Meslier ran the show in the opening 45 minutes as he came up massive to thwart the Norwegian star another clear sight of goal after Kevin De Bruyne’s backline-splitting pass.
Jesse Marsch’s defensive-minded football almost backfired on Leeds late in the first half as Jack Grealish skied the ball over the crossbar after Rico Lewis’ delightful cutback.
But Man City’s pressure paid off in the final seconds of the first half, with Rodri firing the rebound low into the middle of the goal after the ball broke to him in the penalty area.
Although the Cityzens went into the break 1-0 up, they refused to rest on their laurels. Only seven minutes into the second half, Haaland returned to the scoresheet for the first time since November.
Grealish evaded his markers to break one-on-one with Meslier, but instead of trying his luck with a shot, he set the ex-Borussia Dortmund man up on a silver platter to put the game beyond doubt.
Man City continued to dominate proceedings through and through and needed less than 15 minutes from the Norwegian’s first goal to land a killer blow.
The same two players, who orchestrated the second goal, soaked up the limelight for the third. Grealish laid the ball off to Haaland, who slotted the ball home from point-blank to mark his 20th Premier League goal.
He was on the brink of a hat-trick after De Bruyne played him through with a clever pass but failed to beat Meslier from a promising position.
After Man City’s chances went begging, Leeds gave a disappointed Elland Road faithful something to cheer about, with Pascal Struijk outjumping his marker to head home Sam Greenwood’s corner-kick delivery.
Although Greenwood and Joe Gelhardt came close to further reducing the deficit in the remainder of the match, the Whites had to settle for another underwhelming result.
While Marsch’s men finished the Boxing Day round only two points clear of the relegation zone, the Cityzens jumped back above Newcastle United, restoring a five-point deficit on table-topping Arsenal.
Illan Meslier (8/10) – Undoubtedly the main reason Man City didn’t have a more comfortable advantage at half-time. Never lost his focus and came up with more stunning saves after the break.
Pascal Struijk (7/10) – Apart from the goal, the makeshift left-back did a great job keeping Riyad Mahrez quiet throughout the night despite failing to offer much in the front third himself.
Liam Cooper (5/10) – Caught napping a few times tonight, the captain will be kicking himself for giving Haaland so much freedom to threaten Meslier more frequently than expected.
Robin Koch (4/10) – Torn apart by the Norwegian goal-getter time after time, he never found a way to deal with his opponent’s strength and pace.
Rasmus Kristensen (5/10) – The tough-tackling right-back gave Grealish a run for his money tonight, timing his tackles to perfection on multiple occasions to cut the Englishman’s progress on the flank.
Marc Roca (3/10) – When your sole responsibility is to retain possession and help your teammates keep the ball in tight spaces and you do exactly the opposite, it’s hard to expect a better rate.
Adam Forshaw (3/10) – For a player of his experience and significance to Marsch’s set-up, you’d expect more from a deep-lying midfielder, who looked out of steam and comfort for most of the night.
Sam Greenwood (5/10) – Deliver a pinpoint assist for Leeds’ only goal of the night and was perhaps the only home midfielder trying to outmanoeuvre the Man City midfield line-up.
Rodrigo Moreno (3/10) – Not as nearly as decisive as he’d like. Often robbed of the ball too effortlessly before being subbed off midway through the second half. Should’ve left the field earlier.
Wilfried Gnonto (5/10) – Struggled for composed decisions when he should’ve done better, even though he troubled inexperienced Rico Lewis with his speed and tricks.
Brenden Aaronson (2/10) – If Marsch fancied the USMNT forward’s ability to replace Patrick Bamford as a lone striker, he would be better off dropping those hopes after tonight.
Matuesz Klich – 5/10
Luke Ayling – 6/10
Diego Llorente – 4/10
Joe Gelhardt – 5/10
Darko Gyabi – NA/10
Ederson (7/10) – There was nothing he could do to prevent Struijk from scoring. But he pulled off a few decent saves.
Nathan Ake (6/10) – Played out of position, the Dutchman gave his best to provide depth in the attacking third, but technical limitations were too tormenting to overcome.
John Stones (7/10) – Spent more time playing as a right-back due to Man City’s continuous pressure and was hard to be dispossessed of the ball without making a single defensive glitch.
Manuel Akanji (7/10) – While many are still wondering how he displaced Ruben Dias, the Swiss defender continues to perform at the highest level, filling his offensive teammates with confidence from the back.
Rico Lewis (7/10) – Handed a rare Premier League start and excelled, continually switching positions and accepting the responsibility of carrying the ball forward time after time.
Ilkay Gundogan (6/10) – Could and should’ve scored from a clear-cut chance in the second half. Won’t get the acclaim for this win but did enough to keep Man City’s midfield ticking over in rough periods.
Rodri (8/10) – It’s hard to remember an occasion he gave the ball away. Another assured performance from the deep-lying midfielder, who also got on the scoresheet for his troubles.
Kevin De Bruyne (8/10) – Too bad his teammates’ finishing let them down tonight. Otherwise, the midfield dynamo would’ve had at least two assists to his name.
Jack Grealish (8/10) – Despite giving possession away on more than one occasion and struggling to convert a couple of golden opportunities in the first half, his assists to Haaland put the game to bed.
Riyad Mahrez (6/10) – Not one of his most eventful performances by any stretch of the imagination as he struggled for the end product and was shy of taking his markers one-on-one.
Erling Haaland *MOTM* (9/10) – Tap-ins or not, the Norwegian goalscoring machine continues to tear the Premier League defences apart at will.
Joao Cancelo – 6/10
Phil Foden – 6/10
Cole Palmer – NA/10
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