Guardiola keeps faith after Foxes raise 'doubts'
Leicester City 2 Manchester City 1
The word 'crisis' might be premature but, when you have just lost more Premier League matches in 18 days than your previous 61 matches combined, significant wider questions do inevitability arise.
And so when Pep Guardiola admitted last night that his players would be suffering "doubts" following a third Premier League loss in four matches, he was acknowledging the obvious consequence of a sudden dip in results that has been as unexpected as it might now prove costly.
Manchester City, the 'Centurions' who looked ready at the start of this month to win the Premier League title even more emphatically than last season, now find themselves staring up at a seven-point deficit to Liverpool.
They were also even leapfrogged in second place yesterday by Tottenham following a 2-1 loss to Leicester City that completed back-to-back league defeats for the first time in two years.
"All the game is in the mind - and good results make miracles," said Guardiola. "Now there will be doubts. As soon as possible we have to try to win again for our mood, our confidence and our desire."
Guardiola then followed up his concerns about the psychological impact of this most damaging December by outlining his certainty that the players would respond.
"With the joy in how many things they have done in the recent past, I will never doubt them," he said. "If we make the same number of points in the second part of the season, we are still fighting to win the Premier League. We have an incredible number of points but the reality is there are another two teams [above us] and they are better.
"I have to reflect about what the team needs and how to help them."
To that end, Guardiola had already cancelled a scheduled day off on Christmas Eve and, in repeatedly referencing the remedy of "hard work", his players can expect further additional training in the coming weeks.
The wider problem appears clear: Manchester City have not registered a clean sheet in nine matches and their enduring quality in possession is at risk of becoming fatally being undermined by defensive frailties. Fernandinho, who was still unavailable yesterday due to his thigh injury, has been badly missed in front of the defence and his absence was further compounded yesterday by Fabian Delph's late sending-off.
As part of a three-game ban, Delph will now miss the pivotal Premier League match against Liverpool next Thursday. Sergio Aguero was at least back to spearhead the attack and did quickly underline his ongoing importance by releasing Bernardo Silva to put Manchester City ahead after 14 minutes.
Kevin De Bruyne was also starting for the first time this season but, without Fernandinho absent, it was striking to see how Delph was being used to compensate for this lack of a natural midfield anchor. Although Delph's starting position when City were out of possession was left-back, he frequently moved more centrally when his team did have the ball and Leicester, whose counter-attacking remains such a strength, soon began exploiting the defensive holes. Ben Chilwell dispossessed Danilo and his quick pass released Jamie Vardy who, realising that he might struggle to outpace John Stones, was clever enough to cut back and give himself more time. Delph's defensive position had been vacated and Vardy's perfectly weighted cross was headed past Ederson by Marc Albrighton at the far post.
Manchester City might quickly have re-established their lead but Aguero showed rare rust by scooping an excellent chance over from the edge of the six-yard after De Bruyne and Leroy Sane had combined. Despite having to accept a predictable low percentage of possession, the first half ended with a flurry of excellent Leicester chances.
Vardy again sprinted clear but had his shot blocked one-on-one by Ederson, who got up to then deny James Maddison and Hamza Choudhury to complete three saves in less than a minute. The pattern was set and, while Manchester City improved after half-time, Leicester remained consistently more threatening when they did venture forward.
Only a brilliant sliding tackle by Laporte denied Vardy and, after Ederson just failed to prevent a corner, they did strike. Sane had only partially cleared and, having headed straight to Ricardo Pereira on the edge of the penalty area, the full-back unleashed an unstoppable shot beyond Ederson.
Manchester City's misery would then be sealed in the 89th minute when Delph followed through with a recklessly high boot on Pereira to receive a straight red card.
A title race that had looked likely to become a Manchester City procession now needs an urgent rediscovery of form to prevent Liverpool establishing their own unassailable lead. The two teams meet next Thursday, but City must first prepare for a rejuvenated Southampton on Sunday.
"The last issue is Liverpool - we must think first about Southampton and recover," said Guardiola. "I don't forget who we are, how good a team we are, how exceptional the lads we have are but the reality is we have lost three of the last four and, if you want to be real contenders, you have to win again." (© Daily Telegraph, London)