With encouragement from Manchester City and the staff shouting encouragement, the away felt like an away game
Probably the best way to explain the Manchester City mood right now is that it felt like they were playing for supporters. The bench – rows and rows of substitutes and staff – looked like an away game.
City was noisy at Crystal Palace. The entourage, made up of Pep Guardiola’s best players who sat for Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday, didn’t look like a football team.
More of a group of friends in London for the day who wouldn’t have been out of place spending the afternoon at Croydon’s open-air food and drink restaurant, Box Park. A free carnival spirit lived here.
Manchester City beat Crystal Palace 2-0 on Saturday to virtually secure the Premier League title
The outgoing Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero (second right) scored a beautiful goal in the second half
The cheers from the City players and staff from the sidelines prove that they are a united team
Citizens and the Remarkable Accounts of Agüero
Whether it was that Guardiola reflected his cap on the Frenchman Benjamin Mendy and shouted ‘chapeau, chapeau’ after his assist for Sergio Aguero. Or Bernardo Silva, mischievously patrolling the sidelines, wearing a mask and not really warming up, grinning and laughing.
Or a player who squeaked when Raheem Sterling thundered Palace’s post from an impossible angle. Or the submarines told by the fourth officer for fiddling with stray footballs. This is all very nice for them.
A third Premier League title in four seasons has now been effectively stamped and the feeling of togetherness felt like a takeaway from a match City appeared to know they would win. When Agüero’s goal crashed, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Silva and Phil Foden’s party celebrations from the stands saw the trio nearly collapse over a rail.
Fans called it ‘limbs’, the act of unbridled emotion, arms and legs everywhere. “Everyone knows we are experiencing something special,” Guardiola said. ‘Three times in four years, in this country, is more than remarkable.
Eight players didn’t play in Paris last week and they were sad. Happy for the team, but they were sad because they weren’t playing. The best way to answer me – to prove me wrong and make me feel guilty – is on the grass.
‘These players are talking on the grass. That is why we are at 80 points, in the semi-finals of the Champions League, we have won four Carabao Cups in a row. The incredible records and numbers. Why? Because they talk on the grass. ‘
Guardiola’s rotation policy is often discussed, and the manager knows two things: that he is lucky enough to have such depth and that City could not have battled out all four trophies this year without tinkering each week.
“They know I’m a guy who rotates the players a lot,” he said. “And if a guy always, always, always wants to play, it might not be the right place to be.”
For the most part, he has kept player disappointment under control – and this has been noted by his peers. Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson said: “We have to congratulate City, not least by keeping them all on board, as Pep has done, because it’s not easy dealing with 25 players.”
The backup acts excelled. Mendy was exceptional, just as he had been in Leicester City a few weeks ago. Ferran Torres scored the second in a two-minute blitz that took the match away from a resourceful palace.
Guardiola praised attacker Ferran Torres (right) as having turned from a little boy into a man
“Ferran has scored a lot of goals, but this was the first game I saw he could handle what it means to play the physicality of the Premier League,” Guardiola added. “He used to be a little boy and now he’s a man.”
A Torres intervention was what really put City’s bench into action seconds before halftime. Wilfried Zaha galloped down Palace’s left side as they broke threateningly, but Torres held him back with a perfect slide, the kind he isn’t exactly known for.
The couch roared, standing up to applaud the effort. City went goalless at half-time, supported by Torres’s tackle, and had won the game by the hour. Maybe the two things are related.
The stricter customers of a viewing assignment, such as Ruben Dias and Kevin De Bruyne, welcomed this challenge with vigor. Neither was required and both knew that on the way to the capital. A good day off, as they rest before meeting Neymar and Kylian Mbappé again.
“We have to do our job at the Etihad and put in a near-perfect performance to get to the final,” said Guardiola. ‘We play a team with the most talented players in the front. It’s not just one, not just two, it’s three – even three and a half.
‘They can win games in one action. We have to play as a team with an incredible mindset to win. We have to be aggressive. For many years the dedication has been there to be able to win all these titles. ‘
Match Facts: Manchester City vs Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park
C.Rystal Palace (4-5-1): Guaita 6; Ward 6, Kouyate 6, Dann 7, Mitchell 7; Townsend 6.5 (Ayew 82min), Milivojevic 6, Riedewald 6 (Schlupp 59,6), Eze 6.5, Zaha 6; Benteke 6.5 (Mateta 67, 6).
Subs not used: Butland, van Aanholt, McCarthy, Batshuayi, Cahill, Kelly.
Booked: Kouyate, Milivojevic.
Manager: Roy Hodgson 6.
Manchester City (4-2-4): Ederson 7; Cancelo 6, Ake 7, Laporte 7.5, Mendy 7.5; Rodri 7, Fernandinho 7.5 (Zinchenko 67, 6); Torres 8, Jesus 7, Aguero 7, Sterling 7.
Subs not used: Steffen, Walker, Dias, Gundogan, De Bruyne, Silva, Mahrez, Foden.
Scorers: Aguero 57, Torres 59.
Manager: Pep Guardiola 7.
Referee: David Coote 6.