Foden belies his tender years to strengthen City title hopes
Manchester City 1 Tottenham Hotspur 0
There is no sure way to know when a teenager is at last ready to step into the high-stakes games, but in the case of Phil Foden, his manager Pep Guardiola has decided that now in April, amid the intensity of the tightest Premier League title race in years, the moment has arrived.
Seventeen days before, Foden made his first league start at home to Cardiff City and then yesterday afternoon, less than three days after the Champions League epic between these two clubs on the same pitch, he made the difference for a team that had to win.
"Now I am a genius," Guardiola joked later. "He scored a goal. How good is the manager?"
It was Foden's first Premier League goal, headed in from close range after seven minutes, that divided these two teams on a day when it was as warm in Manchester as it was in Barcelona. This was Part IV of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur's momentous 2018-2019 season and it ended with the champions back on top, although in this relentless title race, victory once more came at a cost.
They lost Kevin De Bruyne to injury in the first half, and later Guardiola said that it would be unlikely that the Belgian would play in the derby at Old Trafford on Wednesday, which could well dictate the course of the title. One man's misfortune is another's opportunity and although Foden started instead of David Silva, it means that the 18-year-old now has a much better chance of playing in the game against Manchester United.
Foden, still just 18, seized his chance yesterday as he has done throughout this season. He now has seven goals across four competitions.
When one considers that City can buy any player outside of a few elite clubs in the world, it is remarkable that they have found one in Stockport for nothing, but that is the beauty of development. Foden gave Guardiola's team the energy that the Catalan said they needed to press Spurs when the opposition had the ball.
It was not a comfortable afternoon for City, with Mauricio Pochettino returning to the Etihad Stadium with a shrewd line-up that included four centre-halves in a five-man backline.
Playing for only his third league game since the new year, Juan Foyth did a fine job as a right wing-back against Raheem Sterling. It was notable that Spurs had as many shots on target as City - four in all - but ran into Ederson in fine form. The Brazilian goalkeeper stopped all of them - two from Heung-min Son, and one each from Christian Eriksen and Lucas Moura. Pochettino said that City's goalkeeper had been their best player.
There were five changes from the Spurs side that prevailed on away goals on Wednesday, including the absence of their injured goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
Yet they were in this game until the very end. Their ability to frustrate City's plan to draw opponents out of position and pass through the gaps meant that Spurs were very hard to beat once again.
Spurs striker Son had already gone past Kyle Walker and forced the first save out of Ederson when City took the lead in the seventh minute. The goal was crafted out on the right by Bernardo Silva, who weaved in on his left foot and picked out Sergio Aguero at the back post. His perceptive header was onto the run of Foden, who launched himself at the ball and followed it head-first into the net.
The injury to De Bruyne came around the 35th minute when he seemed to drag his left ankle awkwardly underneath him. He played on for a few minutes and then sliced the ball angrily out of play to stop the game, before dropping to the ground with a general attitude of despair. As he came off in the aftermath, Guardiola said that the player had indicated that his hamstring was the affected area and this could yet be the end of a season that has been plagued by injury.
Both goalkeepers were excellent throughout the match and Paulo Gazzaniga stuck out a leg to block a shot from Sterling in the second half.
Pochettino switched later on, playing Danny Rose in midfield in place of Dele Alli, whose chief role had been to close down the space in which De Bruyne operated. There were penalty handball appeals for both sides, against Walker and Toby Alderweireld, but referee Michael Oliver decided that neither had been intentional.
Fernando Llorente, a late substitute for Spurs, was booed by some of the City fans for what they feel was an intentional handball on Wednesday night for his goal that changed the course of the Champions League tie. That was, to say the least, an intriguing verdict on the events of that particular game. As for Spurs, they next face Brighton at home on Tuesday and will finish in the top four providing they win their remaining four games.
They also have the matter of a Champions League semi-final against Ajax, although Pochettino says that no-one at his club is currently thinking about that match. For Guardiola, the derby game on Wednesday will be just one more examination of whether his team really can stay the course for the domestic treble. He says that his team have nothing left to prove and only the finest of margins can deny them. There is great merit to that argument, although it will not feel that way if United beat them at Old Trafford.