Manchester City frustrated by Crystal Palace as winning run ends
LONDON -- Three points from Selhurst Park as Manchester City were held to a goalless draw by Crystal Palace.
1. Manchester City's lucky escape
All good things must come to an end, and on the final day of 2017, Manchester City's incredible 18-match winning run is finally over after a goalless draw away at Selhurst Park.
But it could have been even worse for City. After Raheem Sterling was adjudged to have tripped Wilfried Zaha in the closing stages, Luka Milivojevic had the opportunity to finally inflict defeat upon City from the penalty spot. The midfielder stepped up, but smashed his shot straight at Ederson, who maintained his clean sheet and City's unbeaten record. It's a moment that Palace might rue come the end of the season -- and might also be looked back on as the closest City come to being defeated.
City's winning run, though, is a Premier League record that may stand for some time -- the previous best was Arsenal's 14 in 2002, stretching across two campaigns. City's only previous failure to win this season was their opening home game of the season, a 1-1 home draw with Everton, when they were handicapped by Kyle Walker's early red card, so this was the first time anyone had stopped 11-man City.
In the grand scheme of things, it changes very little. City points gap over their nearest challengers is 14, with Chelsea rather than Manchester United now in second place. The main focus is still on whether City can go the season unbeaten, matching Arsenal's Invincibles from 2003-04. But Arsenal's unique record of scoring in every game, back in 2001-02, is one feat City now cannot match.
2. Crystal Palace provide blueprint for stopping City
After Newcastle's entirely unambitious approach to stopping Manchester City on Boxing Day, there was speculation that this would become the standard approach against Pep Guardiola's side -- sitting back, parking the bus and refusing to engage in an open game of football. Roy Hodgson's Crystal Palace, however, used a considerably different approach with some degree of success.
Hodgson surprisingly introduced Jairo Riedewald for his first start since the opening day of the season, back in the Frank de Boer era. A centre-back by trade, the Dutchman was nevertheless deployed in a left-sided central midfield position in a 4-3-3/4-5-1. His unenviable job was to track Kevin De Bruyne, who drifted deeper and to the opposite side of the pitch to escape Riedewald's attentions, and was largely unable to dominate in his traditional inside-right positions.
Initially, Palace were impressively positive, keeping a high defensive line whenever possible and attempting to engage City in advanced positions when possible. One moment, when Yohan Cabaye sprinted to shut down Nicolas Otamendi before putting in a typically crunching tackle, brought a huge ovation from the home supporters, delighted that their players were getting stuck in, rather than standing off.
Palace also had the game's first clear-cut chance. A long ball downfield found Ederson sweeping well outside his box but then bumped into Eliaquim Mangala, seemingly presenting Christian Benteke with a long-range open goal. Benteke's shot was struck against Mangala, however. City got away with it. Palace's other fine first-half chance came when the lively Zaha dribbled down the left and played a fine cut-back into oceans of space for Andros Townsend, coming onto the ball in a similar manner to how he scored against Arsenal last time out. Again, however, the shot was blocked.
After half-time, Palace were forced to switch to more of a reactive, counter-attacking system as City increased the pressure, and a couple of promising Zaha moments were halted by indecision or fouls. Fifteen minutes from time, they finally created a proper scoring opportunity, but Townsend blazed high and wide after a low ball across the box.
This came after Hodgson had switched his wingers -- the one criticism would be that he didn't do it sooner, pitching the tricky Zaha against Danilo, a less formidable opponent than Walker. Zaha would also win the penalty from that right flank, but Milivojevic failed to take full advantage of the game's final chance.
3. Injuries could jeopardise City's silverware hopes
Falling to a draw is a disappointing result for Manchester City, but the long-term damage might be more significant, with both Gabriel Jesus and De Bruyne departing with seemingly serious injuries.
Jesus suffered a knee injury through the first half, which resulted in the Brazilian departing in tears. Guardiola will be praying he's not out for a sustained period of time, although the silver lining is that if the striker is set to be out for a long period, now is a decent time for such a setback, with the transfer window opening Monday. Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez would be the obvious target -- and City could have done with the genius provided by the Chilean at this ground three days ago, when he scored two in Arsenal's 3-2 victory over Palace.
Granted, Sergio Aguero isn't the worst replacement, and his deflected effort looped against Wayne Hennessey's right-hand post. But it was one of the few notable moments of the first half, which was surely City's worst of the season so far -- although in fairness, it isn't a particularly damning indictment considering their incredible start to the campaign.
Nevertheless, this was a poor display -- with various moments of technical lapses that felt so uncharacteristic. Walker attempted to trap a ball, and let it run out of play for a throw-in. Fernandinho attempted a diagonal that he thumped straight out of play. De Bruyne tried to feed Leroy Sane, City's most incisive passing combination this season, but they weren't on the same wavelength, and the ball again dribbled out of play for a throw. Isolated moments, but they told the story of the half.
After half-time, City started to turn the screw. De Bruyne pushed forward into a more advanced position and started to run the game, teeing up Ilkay Gundogan for a curled effort that dropped narrowly wide. This was Gundogan's last contribution before he was replaced by Sterling, who took up his customary wide-right position with Bernardo Silva brought inside to play alongside De Bruyne.
Now the chances started to come. Silva darted into the box and lobbed a cross up for Aguero, who headed straight at Hennessey. Sterling's fizzed cross from the right sailed all the way to Sane at the far post, who prompted a fine save from Hennessey. De Bruyne fired at him from 25 yards. Hennessey, returning to the side after a period on the bench deputising for Julian Speroni, became Palace's key man. It was, however, Hennessey's opposite number who was forced to make the game's most significant save.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.