Manchester City hosted newly promoted Aston Villa at the Etihad for Saturday’s early Premier League kick-off in search of three points to reclaim second place from Leicester and close the gap on leaders Liverpool.
Earlier in the week the Blues had a slow start in their Champions League game against Italian side Atalanta, but an impressive second half display, particularly from Raheem Sterling, ensured a 5-1 victory.
Saturday’s Premier League fixture took on a similar pattern. The hosts were held to a goalless first half with Villa arguably having the better chances, despite struggling to get out of their own half for much of the opening 45-minutes.
Raheem Sterling put in yet another man-of-the-match performance as he caused havoc down the left side but just couldn’t find that killer pass or shot to give his side the lead.
That changed within seconds of the second half kicking off as City capitalized on some poor defending from Villa and Sterling made no mistake in taking his first clear cut chance.
The goal was his 13th in 14 games – a remarkable improvement, considering the criticism he has received in the past for his lack of finishing ability.
Sterling’s performance throughout the match after his hat-trick against Atalanta on Tuesday impressed the manager, who heaped praise on the 24-year-old after the game.
“The only person in the first half who was aggressive was Raheem,” said Guardiola. “In the second half we imitated him.
“What I liked the most is after scoring three goals against Atalanta, everybody talks in the media how good you are.
“Usually the next game you play like ‘how good am I’ (letting the praise go to your head).
“He was the complete opposite. That is our strength as a team in the last years together. I am so proud of Raheem.”
Pep’s defensive problems were multiplied in the final stages of the game when makeshift central defender Fernandinho was shown a second yellow card and received his marching orders.
John Stones was responsible for Villa almost taking the lead in the first half following a loose pass but Ederson managed to keep the first effort out and Cancelo managed to nick the rebound away from harm.
Stones has not started back-to-back games since February and there has been much talk of him falling out of favour with Guardiola – talk which was not eased on Tuesday when the manager was seen reacting angrily when Stones appeared not to be ready to take his place on the field following the injury to Rodri.
Out of favour or not, it appears increasingly that Pep will be forced to rely on the England international as injuries continue to shape the team, especially the defensive options.
Benjamin Mendy, another big purchase, has also been plagued with injury since his move to the Etihad and although he has endeared himself to fans with his humorous tweets, he tends to do better going forward than actually defending.
Guardiola seemed to be taking no chances on Saturday as he withdrew Mendy, who appeared to get through 73 minutes without issue, and replaced him with Angelino.
It looks unlikely that City will go in search of an answer to their current defensive crisis in January. But with their most stable player Aymeric Laporte sidelined until sometime in the new year, it looks as though Guardiola will continue to have to roll with the punches and keep using a makeshift defensive pairing where he can.