Three players could have said Etihad goodbyes
Named in the starting lineup as part of Manchester City’s second string vs Chelsea, Aymeric Laporte took a ten-minute solo stroll around the Etihad pitch around 90 minutes before kick-off at the Etihad, taking videos, watching the big screen, and seemingly chatting to someone on his phone. It’s not unusual for players to do things like that – Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez always inspect away grounds in similar fashion – but it’s not something City players often do at home, and Laporte appeared to be in tears at one point.
Laporte is one of a few City players who aren’t guaranteed to be at City next season. Still under contract, but firmly down the pecking order at the back, the Spaniard cannot be pleased with his game time this year. Maybe it’s reading too much into things, but could he have been taking it all in on his final Etihad appearance?
Likewise, captain Ilkay Gundogan’s future is still not resolved, and as he lifted the Premier League trophy, there are no guarantees he will be here next season to lead the title defence for a fourth season running. And with Bernardo Silva refusing to commit his future to City, or at least look beyond the end of the season, he is another who may have played his final home game. Both earned standing ovations as they warmed up, but were not given the chance to get on the pitch ahead of more important games to come.
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Phillips offers promise on first start
Kalvin Phillips became a Premier League champion before starting a game in the competition for Manchester City. His long wait for a full league debut for City came the day after the title was confirmed, and it felt like his best showing in a sky-blue shirt from a very frustrating season.
By reaching half-time, Phillips topped his previous best for minutes played in a league game for City, with a measly 104 minutes to his name from nine substitute appearances. His 90 minutes against Chelsea accounted for 46 per cent of his total Premier League game-time all season.
He will surely have hoped for more, and he has hardly been backed to be a key player by his manager, however he now has a performance to build on in the competition. He looked steady against Chelsea, won the ball that started the counter for the first goal, and kept the makeshift midfield ticking. It’s been a while, but this was finally a sighting of the Phillips City had hoped to see for the last ten months.
City fans vs Sterling
Raheem Sterling was the pantomime villain on his first league return to the Etihad, going close on a number of occasions but being let down by the final shot or being denied by the City defence. With every missed opportunity, the cheers got bigger, and his former Blues teammates looked to enjoy the battle with a player who was so important to their four titles in five years.
When Sterling squeezed his shot under Stefan Ortega and looked to trickle over the line, John Stones hacked it clear and consoled Sterling as they walked back to restart play. As much as City fans mocked, though, they also recognised Sterling’s contribution to their success before his departure in the summer.
They reprised his old song – ‘he’s top of the league’ – and when Sterling was replaced, the Etihad rose to applaud their former number seven. Despite the light-hearted jeers, Sterling will have been in no doubt that he is still well-liked in these parts of Manchester, even if his departure hasn’t yet gone to plan.
Palmer’s best City performance
Cole Palmer stayed at City this summer but has found chances hard to come by with Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez so good ahead of him. And when he has got a chance, he’s often failed to impact games on the wing. At the same time, he’s seen academy teammates James McAtee and Tommy Doyle excel in the Championship, but this was a reminder of his quality as he started his first league game of the season.
Palmer was clever to wait for the space to open up and feed Julian Alvarez for City’s opener, and nearly created a chance minutes later but Chelsea cleared. Playing with confidence, this was the Palmer who did so well last season and for the academy the year before. Finally, he took his chance from the start.
Time will tell whether he remains in the City squad next year or seeks regular football like others his age have done. The quality has always been there, and this was a perfect time to remind Pep Guardiola of that fact. If he gets more chances in the next week, he has to back up this performance with another strong one. It was undoubtedly his best game of the season.
Plan for final two games
If City had a title to win, the team that faced Chelsea would surely have been stronger. Guardiola had said the championship point at Wimbledon is the hardest point to win, so it helped that Arsenal double-faulted to do City’s job for them. As a result, Guardiola rested all of his big guns, and gave two full Premier League debuts in the much-changed side that replaced them – plus another first league start of the campaign for Cole Palmer.
With long trips to Brighton and Brentford before travelling to Wembley and Istanbul for the FA Cup and Champions League finals, Guardiola looks like he will use the full limits of his squad in the final week of the season to ensure his first-choice players for those finals are given as much rest as they need.
As well as allowing the likes of Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne and Rodri some much-needed recuperation, Guardiola can also run the rule over others who haven’t featured much this season. Stefan Ortega, Sergio Gomez and Kalvin Phillips were effectively auditioning for a place in next year’s squad, while this was a chance to test Rico Lewis and Phil Foden in midfield when they wouldn’t often get the chance to play there in full games.