It’s only halfway through but when the unofficial game of the season title is awarded it has to be a contender. An extraordinary afternoon was marked by a devastating and dynamic start from Manchester City, who scored four fewer goals in 25 minutes, and a remarkable comeback from Leicester, thanks to a magnificent performance by James Maddison, on the most powerful Boxing Day. important. match for three decades. “A roller coaster,” said Pep Guardiola. “For everyone it was an entertaining game.”
It ended with their side’s ninth consecutive victory, six points clear of Liverpool as they brought their tally to 17 goals in three matches. But if he appeared to be finished with an hour left, instead he delivered the drama to the last. City could be grateful to Aymeric Laporte for leading them 5-3, but Leicester were still not done. They’ve lost their tendency to beat the best in the Premier League this season, but they’ve shown they can still bother them.
City, however, prevailed in part thanks to a stellar start, taking their record to 35 top-flight wins in a calendar year because they first overwhelmed a weakened Leicester team, when they were overflowing with ambition and inventive movement, when they seemed relentless and when, helped by penalties, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling extended their fine streaks of goals. “He’s been really good,” Sterling’s Guardiola said.
Stripped of five injured defenders, Leicester made six substitutions and benched a fit Jamie Vardy, but they were unable to protect a makeshift defense. “Obviously we haven’t gotten off to a good start,” Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers said. A fifth-minute opener was the payoff for City’s early attack.
It happened in a beautiful way, Fernandinho made a forward pass, the formidable Kevin de Bruyne turned away from Luke Thomas and fired a shot in front of Kasper Schmeichel. Assists and goals came from their less favored left feet. Ilkay Gundogan was the second midfielder to appear in the box and score as he could only put Joao Cancelo’s low cross in his path.
He was sandwiched by two punctual kicks, a day of punishment for Youri Tielemans. Mahrez took a penalty into the ceiling of the net, beating his former teammate Schmeichel, after Tielemans snatched Laporte to the ground. Initially unconvinced, referee Christopher Kavanagh imposed the penalty after reviewing the incident on a monitor. “Nowhere near a penalty,” Rodgers complained, but Tielemans tripped Sterling. The latter assumed the duties of punishment and hit the house. “The quality of the players, we have produced this number of actions to score goals,” said Guardiola.
Without Schmeichel’s brilliant saves to deprive Sterling and Gundogan of a second, it would have been five at halftime. “We’re a team that never goes down mentally and physically and it would be an easy thing to do, but the players showed an amazing spirit and played great football,” Rodgers added.
Leicester mounted a brilliant response. Maddison struck after glorious touches took him past Laporte and Ruben Dias, he traded passes with Kelechi Iheanacho and landed a shot past Ederson. “James in particular has been exceptional for us, with his ball quality, his pace of work, his creativity,” said Rodgers.
Maddison’s weaving course led to Leicester’s second. Iheanacho got another assist and Ademola Lookman struck. Ederson had turned a spectacular first-half effort from Maddison at the helm. When he did it again after the break, Leicester got a reward: he obligingly fell for Iheanacho to score against his former club. “They are masters of counterattacks,” added Guardiola.
Leicester were two times close to a fourth, with Iheanacho having a saved shot and Marc Albrighton walking away. “We had two very good chances,” said Rodgers. Instead, Leicester’s set-piece problems cost them; they could have done it when Daniel Amartey deflected Fernandinho’s header on the bar. Instead, Laporte headed to the corner of Mahrez and Sterling got his fifth in four games when Dias met the Algerian’s delivery. Rodgers concluded: “The disappointment is to concede two set pieces and two penalties.”
Updated: December 26, 2021, 6:13 PM