Kevin De Bruyne, back in the starting XI, was City’s driving force once again and Pep Guardiola was also able to welcome back defender Ruben Dias from injury but it was not a perfect night for the manager. Nathan Ake was substituted at halftime with an injury and John Stones also came off late on.
Even for players who have been there and done it, these are occasions that really test the nerve. Liverpool’s demolition of Manchester United the previous night had only upped the ante and, even from early on, you could sense the apprehension and restlessness among the City supporters. Thirty five minutes in and a hush had descended across the Etihad and it is hard to believe that players do not pick up on that nervousness.
Brighton have been spoil sports on the road for most of the top six this season, beating Arsenal and Tottenham in their last two outings and also taking points at Liverpool and Chelsea earlier in the season. So this was never going to a breeze for City, particularly as there have been clear signs of weariness over the past week.
The sheer doggedness of their defending got them over the line in Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Atletico. But they looked pretty spent in their FA Cup semi-final defeat to Liverpool at Wembley, where they were overrun in the first half before a late rally, and it was no surprise to see Guardiola make six changes to his line-up on Wednesay night .
They don’t score a lot Brighton but they do not concede too many either and it is easy to see why. They are organized, close down space well and get men around the ball quickly. In Moises Caicedo, they also have a tireless, tenacious midfielder in the N’Golo Kante mold and boy was the Robert Sanchez indebted to him in the 17th minute.
After City’s press forced the ball back to the Brighton goalkeeper, Sanchez arrowed a miscued path into Riyad Mahrez on the edge of the penalty area. Mahrez controlled the ball beautifully on his chest and it sat up ready to hit first time with the goal open but the City winger took another touch, which gave Caicedo just enough time to make a superb interception.
De Bruyne later shot narrowly wide and Bernardo had a scooped shot plucked out of the air but City’s best chances came from errors and lapses from an otherwise diligent, disciplined Brighton. Taking a leaf out of Sanchez’s book, Lewis Dunk played a careless pass into Ilkay Gundogan, who drilled it first time into De Bruyne before continuing his run. De Bruyne laid off the ball and Gundogan carried it into the penalty area only for Dunk to recover and block the German’s shot.
Halftime brought a tweak for City. Nathan Ake went off injured, Ruben Dias came on for his first appearance for seven weeks and John Stones was moved to right back with Joao Cancelo switched to the left. The much craved breakthrough came within eight minutes and, on the 65th minute, a second goal followed.
There was an element of good fortune to both goals, the sort Liverpool supporters will doubtless curse, although certainly for the opener there should be plenty of credit going the way of De Bruyne. City’s talisman missed the Cup defeat with a calf injury and his return here was welcomed. He was City’s most likely catalyst in the first period and it remained the case after the interval. When Alexis MacAllister’s pass was intercepted by Gundogan, he recycled the ball quickly to De Bruyne and suddenly City were hitting at pace on the transition with the Belgian surging forward on one of those penetrative, lung-busting runs of his, holding off the attentions of first Marc Cucurella and then Caicedo. Caicedo recovered ground to make a challenge but the ball ended up ricocheting off Dunk into the path of Mahrez, who shot deflected off the outstretched leg of Joel Veltman and past Sanchez.