Manchester City beat Blades to close gap at the top of the table

Manchester City
Rodri scored City’s late winner when they beat Sheffield United in August, and opened the scoring early on this time, with his fifth goal of the season

Manchester City ended a stellar year on a high note by beating a battling Sheffield United side to move within two points of Premier League leaders Liverpool.

Rodri gave the defending champions an early breakthrough when he latched on to Phil Foden’s neat pass and fired into the bottom corner of the net from the edge of the area.The Blades’ packed defence meant Manchester City had to wait to add a second but Foden was the provider again when it arrived midway through the second half, with his low cross despatched by Julian Alvarez.

City, who were crowned Fifa Club World Cup winners before Christmas, displayed all five of the major trophies they have won in 2023 on the pitch before kick-off.

It was a reminder to their rivals that they remain the team to beat this season, and so was the sight of Kevin de Bruyne in their squad after more than four months out with a hamstring injury.

The Belgium midfielder did not make it on to the pitch this time, but the sight of him warming up on the touchline in the second half brought huge cheers from the home fans.

In contrast, the Sheffield United fans had little to get excited about, as their side offered little in attack other than a flurry of chances just before the break.

Defeat felt inevitable as soon as City scored their second goal, and Chris Wilder’s side remain bottom of the table, and without an away win this season.

City chasing more glory in 2024

The five trophies Manchester City won in 2023 were on display before kick-off

City had dropped points through conceding late equalisers in each of their past three home league games, but there was never any danger of a repeat of that here.

As well as the victory, which means they have secured back-to-back league wins for the first time since the start of November, they also had a first clean sheet in eight games to celebrate.

It had already been a productive festive period for Pep Guardiola’s side, who saw all the teams above them drop points, and they appear to have put any talk of a pre-Christmas crisis well behind them.

“We are not top, but I could not expect that with the results we had,” Guardiola said afterwards.

“Apart from two or three games, we played really well without the results that maybe we deserved – but in football what you deserve doesn’t count, it is a business and you have to win games – and here we did it.

“I am really pleased for the guys, after two days rest [after beating Everton on Wednesday].

“It was an intense month for all the Premier League teams I would say but the travel to Saudi Arabia was an incredibly positive impact on all of us, for the trophy first and to be together, after the disappointment of drawing with Crystal Palace after an incredibly good performance.”

City can look back with pride at their achievements in 2023, but they also have lots to look forward to in 2024.

De Bruyne’s seemingly imminent return to action is a major boost and they will hope to welcome Erling Haaland and Jeremy Doku back from injury in January, as they push on in search of more silverware – starting in the FA Cup, where they host Huddersfield next weekend.

“In terms of titles and prizes, the past year was really good,” Guardiola added. “To see the five trophies on the pitch was really nice.

“We are so satisfied and proud but at the same time, now they are in the trophy cabinet and it is Huddersfield next.”

Blades show spirit but lack quality

While Sheffield United showed plenty of spirit here, they were clearly short of sufficient quality to seriously trouble their hosts.

The Blades end the year bottom of the table and they must make history if they are to stay up from here, as no Premier League team has managed that after earning so few points after 20 games.

It is difficult to assess exactly where Wilder needs reinforcements going on this display, given the gulf between these two sides.

But the fact that, so far, they have so far scored the fewest goals in the top flight, as well as conceding the most, suggests improvements are needed all over the pitch when the January transfer window opens, if they are to have any hope of survival.

“There’s no downside from this game, with the experience it’s given some of our younger players,” Wilder said afterwards.

“For me it wasn’t just regarding this game, because we always knew it would be incredibly tough to go and get a result at City. It is the overall six games [since he took charge] that I have reflected on when I spoke to the players afterwards – what they have given me, and what they have shown.

“I said after the first game against Liverpool, don’t kid me, is this a one off? And it wasn’t, in terms of their attitude.

“And now what we have is hopefully some additions coming into the group [in January] and precious time to work on the training ground, where we can work on all aspects of our play.

“But I think if you asked any Sheffield United supporter what they’ve taken from the past six games, it’s that the team has got fight in them, and it’s the same from my point of view.”

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