Pep stands by team selection

Manchester City's Spanish manager Pep Guardiola watches from the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Crystal Palace, on Dec 22, 2018.
Manchester City's Spanish manager Pep Guardiola watches from the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Crystal Palace, on Dec 22, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

City manager also refuses to blame individual errors as he backs team to 'win games again'

MANCHESTER • Manager Pep Guardiola refused to press the panic button on Saturday after Manchester City slumped to a second defeat in three Premier League games to hand Liverpool an early Christmas present in the title race.

Crystal Palace came from behind to clinch an unlikely 3-2 win at the Etihad Stadium which ended City's perfect home record in the league this season and saw them trail Liverpool by four points going into the festive period.

City had not lost any of their previous 52 league games against teams outside the traditional "Big Six", a run dating back nearly two years to a defeat at Everton in January 2017.

Guardiola defended his decision to start with key pair Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne on the bench while John Stones played in midfield in the absence of Fernandinho.

"Normally the selection, when we win I am a genius and, when they win, the selection is not good. I accept that role, but I don't know what would happen if Kevin or Sergio had started," said the Spaniard.

"Dinho is injured. Yesterday, he felt that problem, but John played so good (in midfield) at Leicester and I want to give another option for the long balls.

"They are a strong team in the air. We decided to put him there and he played good, except one ball.

"I admire and give credit to people who try to adapt to positions they are not used to."

City took the lead through Ilkay Gundogan, but Palace hit back with a Jeffrey Schlupp strike and a goal-of-the-season contender from Andros Townsend. The home supporters were stunned into silence when Kyle Walker rashly fouled Max Meyer and Luka Milivojevic stuck home the resulting penalty.

Guardiola admitted that he was not impressed with Walker's challenge but chose not to criticise him publicly, saying that he "will learn".

Last Christmas, City were able to relax in the comfort of a 13-point lead in the Premier League but, after two defeats in three games, the festive mood in the team will be tinged with a little anxiety this year.

City face a tricky Boxing Day fixture away to a Leicester team who on Saturday did what Guardiola's side could not manage - win at Stamford Bridge.

Then a trip to Southampton, revitalised with two wins under new manager Ralph Hasenhuttl, awaits on Dec 30 before the crucial clash with Liverpool on Jan 3.

Injuries have certainly played a part in City's recent stumbles, but it is David Silva's absence which has hurt the team most.

The Spaniard has been sidelined with a hamstring injury he picked up in the loss to Chelsea on Dec 8 and, while he is back in training and should be ready to return before the Liverpool game, City missed him badly against Palace.

The zip to City's passing and movement, particularly in the space in front of the opposition penalty area, was missing with no one able to direct play with the urgency and precision that Silva provides.

Without him, wide players Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling did not receive the same quality of service and lone forward Gabriel Jesus saw few opportunities.

But Guardiola is confident that his team will bounce back from the mini slump. "We are in December and we will try and recover and try and win games again," he said. "There are a lot of games to play. We have to recover mentally and recover our physicality."

Palace manager Roy Hodgson attributed his side's first victory in 28 years at City's home ground to hard work.

"You don't produce that sort of performance by waving a magic wand or having a five-minute team talk - there's a lot of work that goes into that structure and we were excellent," he told the BBC.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2018, with the headline 'Pep stands by team selection'. Print Edition | Subscribe