If there is one thing that Liverpool should know, squatting defiantly at the top of the Premier League, it is that Manchester City have no intentions of seeing another team remove the championship trophy from their possession. Pep Guardiola’s team made that clear when Liverpool were the visitors and, in their latest victory, it quickly became apparent the reigning champions seem quite happy playing this game of catch-up. For now, at least.
By the time they were done, the gap had come back down to four points, Gabriel Jesus had fully justified Guardiola’s decision to keep him in the starting lineup and, to the crowd’s amusement, the goalkeeper, Ederson, had left the penalty area to start stroking around a few passes in midfield. City now have Huddersfield, Burnley and Newcastle, all in the bottom six, as their next three assignments. February looks trickier, starting with back-to-back games against Arsenal and Chelsea, but it is fair to say Liverpool must be acutely aware of the team looming in their wing-mirrors.
The only surprise, perhaps, was that City did not do more to enhance their goal difference once Jesus had scored twice in the first half, either side of Willy Boly’s red card for a studs-high challenge on Bernardo Silva. Two ahead against 10 men, City coasted through the second half but restricted themselves to only one more goal, courtesy of Conor Coady inadvertently turning a deflected cross into his own net.
Boly did at least apologise to his opponent and, in days gone by, he would probably have had a reasonable defence that he took the ball first. Unfortunately for the Wolves defender, he ought to have realised there is no mitigation in modern football when the follow-through involves studs connecting with a player’s ankle. Boly had launched himself off the ground with both feet in the air and, though it was only one foot that struck Silva, the referee, Craig Pawson, was entitled to consider it reckless play.
Ten minutes earlier City had taken the lead through a familiar route, with Leroy Sané sprinting behind the opposition defence to deliver a low cross from the left to Jesus in his favoured position inside the six-yard area. It was a slick exchange between the winger and striker but the most impressive part of this goal was that it originated from the kind of incisive forward pass – played by a centre-half – that Kevin de Bruyne, restricted to a place among the substitutes, would have been proud of. Aymeric Laporte’s ball was weighted beautifully, picking out Sane’s run while taking out two Wolves defenders. Jesus, selected ahead of Sergio Agüero, slid in to meet the ball just in front of the goalkeeper Rui Patrício and, after that, the night quickly unravelled for a Wolves side that has slipped to 11th in the league.
When Jesus doubled the lead with a penalty six minutes before half-time it meant the Brazilian had accumulated seven goals in eight days and, again, it must have been startling for Nuno Espírito Santo to see how vulnerable his team looked. Did Ryan Bennett make enough contact on Raheem Sterling to warrant the decision? Sterling was travelling at speed, darting past Bennett and Coady, and he does occasionally tend to make the most of any form of contact inside the penalty area. Yet it was a clumsy effort from Bennett, who missed the ball, and ultimately Sterling was too quick for him. Jesus came forward, stuttering his run-up, and sidefooted his kick past Patrício to continue City’s remarkable run of having scored at least twice in every home game this season.
Boly’s early departure meant Leander Dendoncker moving into a more defensive role and the visitors switching to a 5-2-2 system with little hope but to catch their opponents on the break. Truthfully, however, the game had already become a damage-limitation exercise for Wolves before half-time and a side with 10 men was bound to be vulnerable against a side with City’s pass-them-to-death approach. It is 35 games since City were last defeated by a promoted side, going back to February 2007 against Reading, and Wolves have not won here in the top division since December 1979.
At least the Wolves fans had not lost their sense of humour, greeting every touch with “olés” during one passage of play early in the second half when the 10 men reminded themselves what it was like to keep the ball for a couple of minutes.
For the most part, however, they had to repel a City side for whom Sané was excellent and David Silva was becoming the highest appearance-maker in the Premier League era. This was the Spaniard’s 267th league appearance, meaning he overtakes Joe Hart – though still some way short of the proper club record, set by Alan Oakes with 564 games from 1959 to 1976.
Silva, in truth, did not have his best game, eventually being replaced by De Bruyne on the hour, but the same could be said of his team overall. The fact is City did not have to reach their peak level to win so comfortably and that, perhaps, is the scariest part for the one side that continues to look down on them in the league table.