SHEFFIELD, United Kingdom, Jan 22 – Sergio Aguero came off the bench to seal Manchester City’s 1-0 win against Sheffield United as the Argentine striker extended his red-hot start to 2020 on Tuesday.
Pep Guardiola’s side were labouring to break down United until Aguero ended their stubborn resistence in the closing stages at Bramall Lane.
City striker Gabriel Jesus had a penalty saved by Dean Henderson in the first half but with 17 minutes left Aguero bagged his seventh goal in four appearances this year.
His 21st goal of the season in all competitions moved second-placed City to within 13 points of runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool, who have two games in hand on the champions.
While City’s hopes of winning a third successive title have been shattered by a combination of their own failings and Liverpool’s incredible form, there is still much to play for this term.
Guardiola harbours dreams of leading City to their first Champions League crown and they also face an FA Cup date with Fulham this weekend, followed by the League Cup semi-final second leg against Manchester United.
With those cup ambitions in mind, Guardiola will have been encouraged by the way City coped with the Blades’ aggressive game-plan and emerged with a fourth win from their last five league matches.
Keeping just their third clean sheet in 14 league games was another boost for Guardiola, who gave French defender Aymeric Laporte his first appearance since August after recovering from a serious knee injury.
Laporte had been back in training for over a week, but his presence in the starting line-up for the first time in 143 days was a surprise as Guardiola had hinted he was not set to feature just yet.
Guardiola might have been regretting his gamble when Muhamed Besic crashed into Laporte’s ankle with an ugly tackle that earned a yellow card.
City’s response to United’s bruising start came in the form of a blistering counter-attack.
Raheem Sterling found Riyad Mahrez and ran into the penalty area to meet the Algeria’s return pass with a first-time strike that drew a fine save from Henderson.
– Crucial contribution –
It took another good stop from Henderson to deny Nicolas Otamendi from the defender’s spectacular overhead kick.
City’s pressure should have yielded the opening goal in the 35th minute after Mahrez superbly prised open United’s defence.
Sprinting down the right flank, Mahrez cut into the area and evaded two defenders with some nimble footwork before Chris Basham’s trip sent him sprawling.
With Jesus replacing Aguero in starting line-up, it was the Brazilian who took the penalty, but his effort was superbly pushed away by Henderson.
City felt Henderson moved off his line before Jesus made it three misses from his last six penalties, but their appeals for a retake were ignored.
Chris Wilder’s team were doing their best to ruffle City and Fernandinho took a clattering from John Fleck that drew a booking before the Brazilian got a yellow card of his own after smashing into Oliver McBurnie.
City were not on peak form but even at less than full power they were still dangerous and Henderson had to keep out Jesus’s close-range header.
Guardiola sent on Aguero for Jesus and within six minutes the switch paid off as City finally broke through in the 73rd minute.
Kevin De Bruyne wriggled into space for a perfectly-weighted pass that picked out Aguero’s run to the far post, where the Argentine had the simple task of slotting home.
De Bruyne’s crucial contribution made him the first player in Premier League history to provide 15 or more assists in three different campaigns.