Man City lean on Aguero, Gabriel Jesus to save a point at Middlesbrough
MIDDLESBROUGH, England -- Three thoughts on Man City's surprising 2-2 draw at Middlesbrough ...
1. Jesus saves Man City at 'Boro
The two sides from Manchester remain within a point of each other after Manchester City could not capitalise on United's earlier 1-1 draw with Swansea. At Middlesbrough, City required an 85th-minute equaliser from Gabriel Jesus and the help of referee Kevin Friend, who awarded a questionable penalty when Leroy Sane collided with Marten de Roon. Sergio Aguero converted from the spot with boos ringing out from home fans.
Before those incidents, a shock looked likely. It was another afternoon on which City struggled for fluency, with Pep Guardiola's tactics leaving his team far too open to Middlesbrough's counterattack. 'Boro scored first in the 38th minute and deserved their lead. After a City attack broke down, George Friend's raking pass found a speeding Cristhian Stuani down the left flank. His cross then found its way to Alvaro Negredo, who drilled his shot off a post.
Even before that goal, 'Boro had been lively. Negredo, playing against his former club, whose fans still call him "Beast," might have done better when dragging a shot wide when left in open space in the 12th minute. De Roon had also skewed an effort wide when a chance presented itself just after the half-hour mark.
That might have been a warning sign to City, who looked laboured and heavy-legged after Thursday's grind of a Manchester derby. Their best first-half chance came in the opening seconds, when Sergio Aguero dragged a shot wide. Negredo's goal was not against the run of play, though Gabriel Jesus had just passed up the chance to head in a cross from Nicolas Otamendi.
One of the key reasons for City failing to live up to expectations under Guardiola is a weakness in midfield. Like Arsenal in last week's FA Cup semifinal loss, 'Boro found opportunities to break in speed and numbers through great gaps in City's central area.
Initially partnered by youngster Aleix Garcia, Fernandinho struggled for command as part of a first-half 3-5-2 formation that simply didn't fit the players Guardiola had available. Gael Clichy and the enigmatic Jesus Navas were little use as the wing-back pair. Half-time brought a change of thinking and a 4-4-2 formation, with Kevin de Bruyne pushed out left. However, just four minutes after that, off came Clichy and Garcia for Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling.
Guardiola was struggling for answers against a team that had won just one league match in 2017, which only came last week against Sunderland. Sterling and Sane added zip almost instantaneously and the second half became a session of City attack vs. Middlesbrough defence. Sane certainly made a difference, though he became a pariah for 'Boro players and fans alike when he jumped into De Roon's outstretched leg.
Fired by a sense of injustice, 'Boro regained focus admirably and scored their second, in the 77th minute, from another counter. Otamendi brought down speeding substitute Adam Traore and City failed to clear their lines from Stewart Downing's free-kick. Willy Caballero's handling was poor and Negredo's shot was deflected into the path of Calum Chambers, on loan from Arsenal, City's rivals for a top-four place.
2. Aguero and Jesus act in tandem
The return of Jesus to the starting lineup after almost three months out gave City a glimpse of what might have been. Sergio Aguero, dropped to the bench when Jesus was making his January breakthrough, has performed manfully over the second half of the season, rattling in 13 goals in 15 matches since the teenager broke down.
Football revolutionary Guardiola used old-school orthodoxy in playing two strikers, and the pair rotated their movements. Having De Bruyne behind them seemed an enticing prospect, but it never quite happened for the trio in the first half. Jesus took a hefty kick from Ben Gibson to that same right foot he broke in February on the quarter-hour mark, howling out in anguish only to swiftly recover. It certainly appeared as if 'Boro's defenders had targeted him for tough treatment, though he did not shirk physical challenges.
When 'Boro made a first-half counter, the player making the most effort to get back and cover was Jesus himself. That thirst for involvement in all areas of the field is what Guardiola asks from his players.
The partnership between the Brazil international and Argentina striker didn't quite fire until that vital late contribution. Until that moment, Jesus had looked short on sharpness, perhaps understandably so. His finish, though, was a reminder of what a burgeoning talent City have on their hands.
3. 'Boro have reasons for optimism
Before Sunday's fine performance, hope had dwindled to the point of despair that Middlesbrough can save themselves from relegation. Is recent form too little too late? Almost certainly, since caretaker boss Steve Agnew has been unable to turn around the fortunes of a squad that had stagnated under Aitor Karanka since he succeeded him in mid-March.
Chelsea and Liverpool are two of their three remaining fixtures. Before this performance and result, both looked way beyond the capability of an outfit who have won five matches all season, with their best win coming against 10th-place Bournemouth. Six points from safety, an escape looks like the tallest of orders.
Whatever happens, there should be optimism for next season as 'Boro look better set for life in the Championship than stricken Sunderland. Captain Ben Gibson has admirers in the top echelon of the Premier League and can be cashed in while players like Friend, Adam Clayton and Adam Forshaw are proven performers in the second tier.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.