Manchester City edge Crystal Palace as Erling Haaland penalty cuts gap at top | Premier League
There was a sense of genuine relief for Manchester City at the end of this awkward, chilly afternoon in south-east London. Erling Haaland, scorer of the only goal of the game, could be seen beating his chest wildly, the City players hugging eagerly.
A 1-0 win with a goal from the spot against a Crystal Palace team that hasn’t won at home since October is hardly the stuff of the springtime cavalry charge. But sometimes these games just need to be won, and City managed to do so here despite fielding a depleted team, with no natural width in the full-back areas and a notable lack of fizz in their attacking combinations.
City weren’t fluent or particularly sharp. But victory made it four in a row in all competitions and three without conceding a goal. This team are undeniably a little different, a little less alluring and distinct in this pared-back, Haaland-centred form. But this thing is evolving. And Haaland, who did very little outside the space between the posts, is very, very good at taking these moments.
John Stones was back in City’s starting team after a hamstring injury for the first time since January, part of a what looked, on paper, like a four-man centre back lineup. In practice Stones seemed at first to be playing in midfield. But this was the Pep-issue full-back version of midfield, creating an overload in the centre in possession, but an orthodox right-back out of it. Which wasn’t, it should be said, very often.
The absence of Kyle Walker from the starting XI was the other side of Stones’s return. City had a rare week off before this game, but a portion of that time will have been taken up with managing the fallout from Walker’s recreational mishap. Pep Guardiola had offered a slightly jarring line in standing-by-your-guy before this game, with talk of the scrutiny of the modern world, and this kind of thing being the price we pay. Hopefully someone within the club has spoken a little more pointedly.
“Against [Wilfried] Zaha and [Eberechi] Eze we needed the physicality of John,” was Guardiola’s explanation, with the suggestion that Walker was simply rotated out. But it did leave City without a genuine full-back on the pitch, the key area in so many Pep teams.
It took two minutes for Vicente Guaita to make his first sprawling save, as Rodri pounded a bouncing ball back at goal after a corner. Otherwise City were controlled and slightly lateral in the opening 20 minutes. They kept the ball, they controlled the tempo. Jack Grealish was urgent and ferrety on the left.
Palace were solid, set up in a hard-working 4-2-3-1 that often became a back six, with constant harrying and cover from Albert Sambi Lokonga, and Jeffrey Schlupp doing a man-to-man job on Bernardo Silva at times.
Just before the half-hour Haaland was presented with an easy chance in front of goal and missed it horribly, trowelling the ball over the bar after fine work from Silva and Nathan Aké. Haaland’s goal record is of course phenomenal: he could declare now and still finish with more goals than the Premier League golden boot winners in each of the last four seasons. But he had also scored in just four of his last 13 games before this one.
City kept pressing. Guaita mustered another fine close range save from a Rodri header. And just before half-time Marc Guéhi could be seen tumbling to the turf and letting out a blood-curdling scream after making contact with Haaland’s arm. But like most of the first half, it was nothing much.
Guardiola ran down the touchline to the dressing room. But City were no more urgent as the second half kicked off. Just before the hour Phil Foden was off, replaced by Julián Álvarez. Suddenly City were playing 4-4-2 with four centre-backs on the pitch, perhaps a kind of homage to early José Mourinho, the golden years.
Álvarez made space with a lovely turn, found himself entirely alone in front of goal, but pummelled the ball wildly over the bar. As the game entered its final third there was a slight fretfulness in City’s attempts to pick through the blue and red lines. Finally, with 75 minutes gone, that weight of pressure told.
The goal stemmed from a poor piece of defending from Michael Olise who lunged in on Ilkay Gündogan inside the box, chasing Gündogan’s heavy touch. Haaland stepped up and zinged the kick into the corner, before celebrating wildly with the away fans, a moment to transform a stodgy, angsty afternoon, into a stodgy piece of victory excavation.
Palace pressed a little harder after the goal. Zaha and Eze finally began to work some nice little combinations. Walker came on with two minutes to play, to mild and perfunctory boos. And City hung on comfortably enough for a win that might just feel a little more significant as winter finally fades.