Man City still just on course for Champions League
Manchester City can look forward to a run of three successive home games after just doing enough to remain on track for a place in next season’s Champions League following Sunday’s 2-2 draw away to Premier League strugglers Middlesbrough.
Pep Guardiola’s men had to twice come from behind to earn a point at the Riverside, with the draw helping them remain fourth — the last Champions League qualifying spot on offer to English clubs — in the table, a point and a place above Manchester United.
City manager Guardiola deserved to take much of the blame for an unconvincing display in the northeast, with the Spanish boss making changes that included leaving Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling on the bench until the 50th minute.
It was a bold move by Guardiola and he almost paid a price as City, lacking the pace and mobility of the missing pair, struggled to make an impact and were trailing midway through the second-half to a goal from their former forward, Alvaro Negredo.
The game changed dramatically, though, when referee Kevin Friend awarded a penalty for a challenge by Marten de Roon on Sane, who “went down very, very easily”, according to Boro caretaker-manager Steve Agnew.
De Roon, the Dutch midfielder, was far less diplomatic. “It was an unbelievable decision from the referee,” he said. “It was never a penalty. I go to him, but I don’t step into him. I stayed in the same place.
“It was clever, but I think a referee has to know if someone is clever or someone tries to get something out of it. If the ball went past me, and he walks through me and the leg is there, it’s probably a clearer penalty.”
He added: “I have been fooled. Of course it feels unfair. I couldn’t do anything else. The ref had a clear view. I told him he would watch it back and he would see it’s not a penalty.”
Sane told Guardiola that it was definitely a foul, but the manager would only say: “I don’t complain about the penalties that have happened to us in the season. It could be a long list, so we are fair in our judgements.”
Sergio Aguero’s goal from the spot set up a tense 20 minutes when Calum Chambers put Middlesbrough ahead again before Gabriel Jesus, one of the players drafted in by Guardiola, earned a point with an 85th minute header.
“I think we deserved to win — definitely. In the second half we made absolutely everything and they only crossed the line twice while we created a lot chances,” said Guardiola.
“Now we will try until the last game and we have three at home now and they will decide if we deserve to be in the Champions League next season.”
Those home games are against Crystal Palace, Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion before City finish their season at Watford. It is a run-in that should offer them enough chances to confirm a top four finish.
Middlesbrough, in contrast, remain in the bottom three and, by the time they go to leaders Chelsea a week on Monday, may need to win to avoid relegation.
“I think this performance just showed the determination and the fighting spirit of the squad. That was evident against one of the top teams in the country,” Agnew said.
“We are looking forward to Chelsea,” he added.
“Six points behind with three games left and a good goal difference. I think the players will take a lot of confidence going into Chelsea having played so well against Manchester City.”