Manchester City threw a party on Sunday and Phil Foden is doing his best to crash a few for the two upcoming finals.
Pep Guardiola had to deal with the aftermath of City celebrations over the weekend, travelling down to Brighton with Manu Akanji, Jack Grealish, Ruben Dias, and Aymeric Laporte. The first three of those would expect to start against United and Inter, yet Foden could still have a say.
It was two years ago on this ground where he scored an outstanding solo goal to highlight what an outstanding talent he already was. It was largely forgotten because the Blues had already won the Premier League and were focusing on their upcoming Champions League final, of which Foden had not done enough to start.
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It is a surprise that someone of Foden’s talent finds himself in the same position in 2023, still an outsider to the best XI after Guardiola found happiness in a pressing machine that involves Grealish and Bernardo Silva on the wings. However, Foden was one of the best on the pitch against Chelsea on Sunday when he got his opportunity and was easily the best on the away team at Brighton.
The goal was straightforward, providing a firm finish to Erling Haaland’s pass after Riyad Mahrez’s chip over the top had caught the home defence out. Haaland notched his eighth Premier League assist for the season, taking him to joint-eighth in the listings among peers including Trent Alexander-Arnold and Bruno Fernandes.
Haaland should have been on the scoresheet before then, somehow heading over a gaping goal in the sixth minute after Foden had dribbled his way into the box and chipped the ball deliciously over to the back post. Midway through the first half, Foden had the vision to set Haaland scampering through on goal but again he erred as a touch took him too close to goalkeeper Jason Steele.
That did not put Foden off though, and he continued to do what he does best. If no passing option was on, he simply jinked his way through players with Pascal Gross in particular having a torrid time trying to contain him.
Foden aside, large chunks of the match were spent with City trying to keep a handle on their rampant hosts. Pep Guardiola before the game compared Brighton to one of the best and most famous Michelin-starred restaurants to have ever existed, and despite nothing riding on this match for either team the footballing feast was largely served up by the blue-and-white shirts.
City struggled regularly to deal with the intense and precise way Brighton pressed them, with Stefan Ortega – one of the few ‘second string’ players in the starting XI as Guardiola strengthened significantly from Chelsea – twice close to gifting the Seagulls a golden opportunity in the first 15 minutes. Kyle Walker, Bernardo Silva, Rodri, and Ilkay Gundogan all found themselves 25 yards from their own goal deciding that committing a foul was the best option to stopping the Brighton momentum, with Danny Welbeck rattling the crossbar from one of the resulting free-kicks.
The timing of the Foden goal, after 20 minutes of being under the cosh, looked very much like champions being champions. They dug in while they had to and then pounced quickly and clinically to take the lead.
Except Brighton, as they haven’t been all season, were not interested in the usual scripts. They just piled on with more pressure and got their reward before half-time when Julio Enciso took a touch and launched an unstoppable effort past Ortega; it said it all about the magnificence of the strike that there were City fans applauding before it had even hit the back of the net.
City rallied after the break, spending less time in their own half to even the contest and putting more pressure on Steele’s goal. That was despite seeing Foden off five minutes into it, replaced by Cole Palmer after reports of being troubled by an Achilles problem.
Brighton were not rocked though, and Kaoru Mitoma and substitute Evan Ferguson ensured Ortega was the busier keeper even if Steele could count himself fortunate that a Haaland goal was ruled out for a soft if deliberate pull of the shirt.
The night felt like it belonged to the hosts, their fans basking in a wonderful team that has earned European football and showing no fear in making the champions suffer. If enough parts can be kept together, they will be serious contenders at the top end of the table next season.
At the same time, City will be very happy to continue their unbeaten run that now sits at 25 games in all competitions – 20 wins and five draws that have all been away from home and all ended 1-1. Guardiola was expecting a strong opponent and will have seen enough to be content with the effort in the drop after winning the league.
Foden was the most significant part of the night from a City perspective. His performance conjured up memories of the Manchester derby earlier in the season when he and Haaland were both unplayable as they scored hat-tricks in a 6-3 scoreline that flattered their rivals.
Much of the season since has been spent fighting for opportunities due to the outstanding form of Mahrez, Grealish and then Bernardo and even if there are no injury concerns it would still be a surprise if the Stockport playmaker can push his way into the XI for the cup finals. As he showed here again at Brighton though, there is no doubting his explosive talent.
Foden impressed on the south coast just like he did two years ago. He will hope for a different end to this season.