Pep Guardiola’s worst Man City stretch is over with an important win at Everton

LIVERPOOL, England — Five days after winning the FIFA Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia, Manchester City secured their most important victory of the season 35 miles from home against Everton. Forget the glory of being crowned world champions for the first time — this win at Goodison Park carries far more significance for manager Pep Guardiola and his all-conquering team.

Beating Copa Libertadores winners Fluminense in Jeddah was nothing more than City tying a ribbon on their incredible year. Last season’s treble — trophies for the Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup — has been embellished by City’s success in the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA’s tournament between the continental club champions, but that trip to the Middle East came in the midst of Guardiola’s worst run of form as City manager.

One win in six league games prior to the visit to Goodison matched the worst league run of Guardiola’s coaching career. The only other time he had recorded such an uncharacteristic string of results was at the end of his first season in charge of Barcelona — when his side had already won the LaLiga title and were preparing for a Champions League final against Manchester United in Rome.

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In other words, recent weeks have been the toughest of Guardiola’s gilded managerial career. And that is why this game against Sean Dyche’s Everton was ultimately so important for City and Guardiola. It was a test of City’s resolve and ability to get themselves back into the title race.

“Really important,” Guardiola said in his post-match press conference. “It was a massive win for us after where we came from, Saudi Arabia, world champions.

“How special is this group of players? We have all of us this is in our bones. We know we are not top of the league. The teams in the middle table can beat everyone and the question for us was still to be there.”

Everton, with four Premier League wins from their last five, were in form and high in confidence, ready to make a mockery of City’s new status as world champions. But by the end of the game, City had answered every question posed of them before and during the game. They left Goodison with all three points, just five points behind leaders Liverpool, who have played one game more than Guardiola’s side.

Even if Arsenal reclaim top spot with a win at home to West Ham on Thursday, Mikel Arteta’s side will only move six points clear of City, having playing an extra game, so the challenge for Guardiola and his players is hardly daunting.

Their rivals have slipped up in recent weeks and failed to take full advantage of City’s form slump — and it looks like they might ultimately pay a heavy price for that because Guardiola’s side have proven to be ruthless in the second half of a season when silverware is at stake.

This win may come to represent City’s season as a whole. A poor first-half when Jack Harrison‘s 29th minute goal put Everton ahead, followed by a convincing win in the second-half after goals by Phil Foden, Julián Álvarez (penalty) and Bernardo Silva made it a comfortable victory.

City lacked spark in the first-half. Midfielder Rodri was constantly crowded out by two or three Everton opponents, the City defence was tormented by Beto, Harrison and Dwight McNeil and when defender John Stones limped off with an ankle injury shortly before the interval, the picture looked bleak.

Injuries have cast a shadow on City all season. Kevin De Bruyne has not played since the opening game at Burnley. Stones has been restricted to just five Premier League starts. Erling Haaland has now missed City’s last six games in all competitions and has yet to return to training with his foot problem. Winger Jérémy Doku has also been out of action since early December.

Yet despite all of the absentees at Goodison and their insipid first-half display, City turned up in the second half and performed like champions.

The supporting cast — outstanding players such as Alvarez, Foden and Matheus Nunes — all emphasised the depth of quality in City’s squad. The players rose to the challenge of fighting back against an Everton side that wasn’t only playing with confidence, but also forcing City to cope with a physical test, particularly with the robust tackling of defender James Tarkowski.

Foden equalised with a low shot from the edge of the penalty area, Alvarez put City ahead from the penalty spot after a handball by Amadou Onana, and Bernardo made the points safe when he punished Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford for a misjudged clearance.

That’s what City do, whether it is over the course of a 90-minute game or a full season: they get better and stronger towards the end.

They have had their dip in form, their injuries and doubts over their ability to repeat last season’s successes. But with so much quality and experience still to come back into Guardiola’s team, it is hard to bet against City doing what they always do by surging past the rest once again.

“Sometimes you have seasons that start going bad, go bad,” Guardiola said. “Hopefully the damage is not bad and can come back.

“January is not so demanding as December but still we are there. I have the feeling the way we are playing is good. Still, the players are angry when they not win and relatively calm when they win. That is the best way to handle the bad moments.”

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