This was a performance, if not a result, that will convince Bournemouth they can still beat the drop and a game that is only likely to strengthen Pep Guardiola’s desire for reinforcements at the back. Manchester City’s defence may have been judged to be watertight by the Court of Arbitration, who quashed the club’s two-year European ban from Uefa this week, but the same could not be said for the one on the pitch on Wednesday night.
Two moments of inspiration – the first a divine free-kick from David Silva, whose impending departure looks increasingly premature, the second an artful piece of centre-forward play from Gabriel Jesus – were ultimately enough to down a spirited, enterprising Bournemouth. But Eddie Howe’s side asked plenty of questions of City’s shaky rearguard and strangely tepid midfield and, in the end, were unlucky not to get something from the game.
Play like this in their final two fixtures against Southampton and Everton and Bournemouth may still have a decent chance of avoiding relegation. Play like this against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Saturday, or Real Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie next month, and Guardiola’s hopes of another “treble” of trophies might be optimistic.
Trailing 2-0 at the interval, there looked a long way back for Bournemouth, even if that scoreline flattered City, but they kept their shape and composure, hunted in packs, played on the front foot and refused to be cowed. And clearly fancied their chances against City’s makeshift back four. Indeed, the best performance of a City persuasion came from Guardiola in his post CAS award, pre-match press conference. Silva and Jesus aside, his players lacked the same passion and defiance.
Guardiola wants at least one centre-half, possibly two, this summer plus a left back and it is easy to see why. With Aymeric Laporte rested, City were wobbly at the back. Benjamin Mendy lacked concentration. Eric Garcia had a tough time of it at right back after replacing Kyle Walker and Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones, well, they seldom inspire confidence these days. They started together in the previous home game against Newcastle and were never tested but here, against Bournemouth’s hungry, mobile attack and dogged press, they did not look comfortable. “It was a really difficult game, they [Bournemouth] played really well,” Guardiola said. “We had a problem in our build up, we struggled and their high pressing was so good.”
Bournemouth should have got on the scoresheet long before they did but their goal again exposed City’s susceptibility to a direct ball in behind. Diego Rico punched a pass from the left. Stones was caught out and Callum Wilson wheeled in behind before crossing for David Brooks to slot home. Bournemouth would get two more sights of goal after that. Callum Wilson dragged a shot wide after Garcia made a hash of clearing Brooks’ cross and Jefferson Lerma had a shot blocked after a goalmouth scramble but it was that sort of day for Bournemouth; nothing quite fell for them.
City’s goals were majestic, a superb free-kick from Junior Stanislas was tipped on to a post by Ederson and then ricocheted off the City goalkeeper and out rather than into the net and a disallowed goal in the second half summed up Bournemouth’s luck. Josh King’s toe was probably only a centimetre ahead of the back of Stones’ heel when his goal from Stanislas’s shot-cum-cross was ruled offside.
“It’s difficult at this stage to cling to positives as you need results and points over anything,” Howe said. “I’m hugely disappointed. I felt we gave everything.”
Bournemouth were behind after just six minutes. Silva had curled home a free-kick against Newcastle but this one, with its gorgeous arc, was on another level. The ball was heading for the top corner the moment it left that wand of a left boot and crashed in off the underside of the crossbar for dramatic effect. Between that and Jesus scoring City’s second, Bournemouth were the better team but you always felt a glut of missed chances could prove costly.