As John Stones trudged from the Villa Park pitch having been sent-off shortly before half-time in Manchester’s City clash against Aston Villa, Pep Guardiola could be seen berating fourth official Anthony Taylor.
The Catalan repeatedly mimicked the challenge on Jacob Ramsey that his his centre-back had made, no doubt arguing that England international Stones was not deserving of a red card.
It took the best part of five minutes for Guardiola to finally retreat, with the threat of the title race being thrown back open looming over him.
This was a game where the result mattered; where City’s ultimate destiny could, if things went a certain way, be defined.
It was everything the Super League would have taken away.
Wednesday’s clash allowed City to move on from a whirlwind 48 hours that had been riddled with protests and U-turns, and get back to doing what they do best: winning football matches.
And though the visitors eventually came out on top, John McGinn’s goal for Villa after just 21 seconds showed just why fans fought so hard for the game they love.
A defeat for City here would have left the door ajar for Manchester United to win their game hand and reduce the gap at the top of the table to five points. There would have been consequence for City’s failure.
Guardiola insisted in his pre-match press conference that success must be hard-earned, and these three points certainly were by the Premier League leaders.
They dug deep to turn the match around, led by the superb Phil Foden – a young man born fewer than 10 miles from the Etihad Stadium, who has wanted nothing else but to fight for trophies with his local club since he was a small boy.
He, along with his team-mates, have been forced to watch on as their futures have hung in the balance, both in terms of whether they remain in certain competitions as well as whether they can ever represent their national team again.
A wave of Foden’s fellow City supporters have threatened to turn their back on the club over their role in the Super League project and time will tell whether they will fully trust the decision-makers again. CEO Ferran Soriano finally wrote a letter of apology to the fans shortly before kick-off, but it may be a case of too little, too late.
At least, with City’s participation in the breakaway competition having ended 24 hours earlier, the first team was spared the vitriol aimed at Liverpool when they arrived at Leeds on Monday, or the fury that held up Chelsea’s team coach ahead of their game against Brighton a day later.
In fact, the only difficultly City’s bus driver faced was a tight turn into the Villa Park car park that saw the vehicle clip a gate on its way in.
Still, Sunday’s announcement has been unfair and unnecessary distraction for a team with so much to play for in the coming week, with the Carabao Cup final and the first leg of their Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain now appearing on the horizon.
Ilkay Gundogan had admitted it had been “a tough 48 hours for the football world but they were ready to go” ahead of kick-off, but when McGinn scored after less than a minute, it looked like that might not be the case.
Foden levelled the scores after a brilliant team move started by goalkeeper Ederson that showcased the best of City on the pitch, before Rodri flicked in what proved to be the winner late in the first half.
City were left fighting for the three points until the final whistle, though the sending-off of Villa defender Matty Cash inside the hour mark at least balanced out the numbers again after Stones had been given his marching orders.
And while the result will not have pleased those who were hoping for a late twist in the title race, this was a game that should be celebrated.
It was a match that supporters fought for, and hopefully soon they will be back in stadiums to show why they remain the most important part of any club.
After two days of uncertainty, football results matter again.
City’s potential treble, therefore, will have plenty of meaning behind it, if they can pull it off.
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