Manchester City are leaders again after showing the relentlessness required to wrest the top spot back from Liverpool, who had 24 hours at the summit after beating Manchester United. The title race is now a six‑match shootout.
City had diced with squeaky posterior time by not scoring until the 53rd minute. But then Riyad Mahrez bundled home and the champions were on their way. Before that nerves had jangled, fans counting each failed attack against a clock that was ticking towards two dropped points, at least. Not now. And if City beat Watford here on Saturday Liverpool will have to stew overnight on a four-point deficit before their Merseyside derby with Everton at Anfield.
This was Pep Guardiola’s 250th City victory in 344 games in all competitions: the quickest in top‑flight history. But the manager’s focus is solely on what is ahead. “We have to win all the games to be champions,” he said. “It’s not necessary to tell that to the players, they feel it. We’re competing with one of the best teams ever in Liverpool. [Our chances] depend on fatigue and injuries.”
Nathan Aké and John Stones are new fitness concerns, joining Kyle Walker. “Aké twisted his ankle, John felt something muscular. It was important for Ruben [Dias] to get minutes,” Guardiola said of the Portuguese, who replaced Aké at half-time.
After being an unused substitute in the FA Cup semi-final defeat against Liverpool on Saturday, Kevin De Bruyne started against visitors who arrived in fine form after consecutive wins against Arsenal and Tottenham. Graham Potter could be proud of these results: they took his side 15 points clear of the drop zone and made them all but mathematically safe.
He would feel only chagrin, however, when a Robert Sánchez chip went across the No 1’s goal straight to a lurking Mahrez as City pressed in numbers. The Algerian drew his foot back to shoot but a Moisés Caicedo slide tackle expertly took the ball and not the man in a situation in which it would have been easy to give away a penalty.
Brighton, as so many do, hoped to hit City on the break. And they did when Solly March killed a high delivery, tussled with João Cancelo and found Pascal Gross in the inside left channel. When the latter crossed, City were in disarray for a moment.
But Stones recovered and his team engineered their own counter, one that, though it foundered when the excellent De Bruyne tapped to Mahrez in the area, was a warning to Brighton of how lethal City are from any position. This was underlined when Bernardo Silva received from De Bruyne and tried a clever lob which was tipped away by Sánchez.
City were cruising along in third gear but had no opener to show for their dominance. Balls punted into Brighton’s area by Silva and Cancelo were overhit and Guardiola might have started to think about a half‑time team talk focusing on the need for ruthlessness.
De Bruyne had run the match thus far and a simple stab of the ball from him into Brighton’s area allowed Ilkay Gündogan to hit the ball goalwards. Lewis Dunk’s block saved his team, and so as the second half began Liverpool remained leaders.
The longer Brighton’s resistance held the more City might tense up. The crowd sensed the same. Three corners came and went, one of them volleyed wide by Rodri and another returned to De Bruyne who booted the ball straight out.
But suddenly, a surge of relief. De Bruyne – who else? – made a swashbuckling run that drove those in yellow back. The ball came to Mahrez, who finished with the help of a deflection, and City celebrated. Guardiola was now in arm-waving mode, semaphoring Silva and Foden to pull wide and hectoring Aymeric Laporte.
Soon, Foden’s speculative hit bounced off Enock Mwepu and past Sánchez to double the lead, and City could relax.
From that point this was an exercise in control for City, and it came with a sweet third.
The flick from De Bruyne that created Silva’s goal was as sublime as the finish from the Portuguese forward was emphatic. Manchester City had refused to blink. Whether they or Liverpool do first in the coming weeks will be defining.