That Manchester City spent the final few minutes searching for a sixth goal to secure the three points – and eventually found it – just about sums this game up.
This 6-3 victory was the highest-scoring Boxing Day game in the English top flight for 30 years and, hence, the most gluttonous of the Premier League era. A depleted Leicester City were first obliterated, then revived themselves, only to be obliterated all over again.
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You wonder whether, as with the infamous high-scoring Boxing Day of 1963, this scoreline will be shared around social media in another 58 years’ time, with everyone wondering what exactly those involved were up to the day before. But this was less to do with an excess of mince pies than the effects of a congested schedule, a makeshift Leicester defence and Man City’s special brand of attacking brilliance.
This was the ninth straight league win for Pep Guardiola’s side, with 31 goals scored over those nine games. It put the defending champions six points clear at the top of the Premier League table and despite a second-half wobble, when the inspired James Maddison dragged Leicester back into contention, it was an ominously dominant Man City display.
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It was done without Phil Foden and Jack Grealish, who continue to be punished for having an especially merry Christmas. Both remained among the substitutes, while Rodri was a notable omission from the matchday squad alongside John Stones and Kyle Walker. Man City’s list of absentees had nothing on that of their opponents, though.
Leicester were missing nine players in all, including most of their first-choice defence, while Jamie Vardy was only deemed fit enough for the bench. Most of those missing, like Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu, were unavailable through injury rather than infection but the result was, nevertheless, the type of makeshift line-up that has been a common sight across the league over this festive period.
Practically every club has problems at the moment, which led Guardiola to suggest during the build-up to this game that a players’ strike may be needed in order to ease the strain on their bodies at this time of year but judging by the opening 25 minutes of this game, Leicester had been listening and taking note.
That opening period was an onslaught, initiated by Fernandinho lofting the ball high in the air. De Bruyne plucked it out of the air and shaped to play in a fellow sky blue shirt, only to turn and convert low into the bottom left-hand corner. De Bruyne started the season slowly, yet since returning from his own bout with the virus a month ago, he is rediscovering his very best.
Riyad Mahrez doubled Man City’s lead from the penalty spot nine minutes later, converting after Youri Tielemans had clumsily dragged Aymeric Laporte down to the ground while jostling on a corner. Barely a quarter of an hour had passed and Tielemans would go on to concede another spot-kick before the half-hour mark, but remarkably, not before Man City had already scored their third.
Kasper Schmeichel had been powerless to prevent either of the first two, though had only himself to blame for the limp hand on a Joao Cancelo cross that invited Ilkay Gundogan’s tap-in. The fourth, a penalty won and converted by Raheem Sterling, was much more difficult to stop, arrowed a few inches underneath the crossbar and high into the top right-hand corner.
After the 7-0 evisceration of Leeds and last weekend’s 4-0 win at Newcastle, Sterling’s goal was Man City’s 15th in 196 minutes of Premier League football. This may not be the Leicester of recent years, yet to see a side generally considered to be the best of the rest – outside the top flight’s wealthiest six – beaten in this way was an ominous sight for those neutrals who want a long and open three-horse title race.
But perhaps with all this disruption and interruption, there comes an element of chaos. How else to describe the 12-minute period during the second half where Man City’s four-goal advantage was not extended nor maintained but cut down to just one? It was mostly down to the in-form Maddison, who scored Leicester’s first by capitalising on a slip by Laporte then exchanging passes with Kelechi Iheanacho to convert.
Maddison was away again five minutes later, pouncing on a heavy Gundogan touch inside Leicester’s half to burst away once more, sparking an almost identical break that this time ended with Ademola Lookman sliding the ball past Ederson. The third broke the counter-attacking pattern, yet was all about Maddison once more: his long range attempt being pushed against the bar for Iheanacho to tap in the rebound.
Guardiola had looked fairly composed after the first two went in but paced out of his technical area with purpose now. The away end’s chants of “we’re going to win 5-4” that had followed Leicester’s first suddenly sounded a little more menacing.
Yet with Laporte’s header from a corner for the fifth, the game was all but won. With Leicester’s momentum sapped, and Marc Albrighton missing a glorious chance to spark another fightback, Sterling added the sixth to make sure of taking all the points.
Guardiola will not be pleased with some of what he saw, particularly the loss of control in the second half and the struggle for midfield supremacy without Rodri, but Man City remain very much in control of their title defence.
Photo Credit: Getty