What did it mean? Does it matter that a late Gabriel Jesus goal gave Manchester City victory at Leicester? What does any of it mean? At least when we stand on the edge of the abyss and gaze into the void, wondering if there might be any purpose to any of it, football usually offers the consolation of the league table. We can cling to that, in its tallying of points find a point. And yet now with the shadow of City’s Champions League ban, and a probable appeal against that, and the possibility of a Premier League points deduction, although nobody seems to know for what season it might apply, the certainties of the table seem somewhat less secure .
If City’s ban is upheld without any delay for the appeal, fifth will be enough for Champions League qualification. Which is great news for Leicester, whose lead over Sheffield United in sixth is 15 points – even after a run of only three wins in 22 games. And it is not as though Chelsea in fourth, whose win on Saturday was just their fifth in 62 games, are breathing particularly aggressively down their neck. And if the ban is upheld, what really have City left to play for, other than the indisputable income that comes with second place?
And that is where Uefa’s action and City’s response have left us, in a limbo in which everything is contingent and nobody quite knows what anything means. Even the defiance of City’s fans seemed a little uncertain, the chants supporting Sheikh Mansour and promising to see Uefa in court less vociferous than the boos with which the home crowd greeted every touch from their former darling Riyad Mahrez. Amid such uncertainty, what is to be done? Nothing perhaps, but to go on, to strive against the futility and try to win football matches.
With Wilfred Ndidi ruled out because of recurrent pain in his knee – leading Brendan Rodgers this week to insist he had not rushed him back after surgery – and Hamza Choudhury suspended, Leicester were left without any holding midfielders. Rodgers’s response was to adopt a back three for only the second time in the league this season. The first brought a 3-0 win at Newcastle, but it is fair to say City offer a very different threat – which is to say, a threat. The presence of Christian Fuchs as a left-sided center-back, though, offered some support for Ben Chilwell, who was left horribly exposed against Mahrez in the game at the Etihad, which City won far more comfortably than the 3-1 scoreline suggested .
Jamie Vardy’s pace against a City side alarmingly vulnerable to the counter-attack had been the main threat in that game and so it was again, the Premier League’s leading scorer hitting the post after eight minutes as he ran on to a Youri Tielemans though-ball. Worryingly for City the chance stemmed from Aymeric Laporte first squandering possession and then, having won it back, being caught on the ball.
After two substitute appearances it was the defender’s first start since sustaining a knee injury at the end of August. His return should in time bring greater stability to a City rearguard that has been suspect at times this season, but that is a process that may take time.
There had been a theory that he would not be risked here with the Champions League tie at Real Madrid on Wednesday, but that early shakiness suggested he needs the minutes to feel his way back into form before a game of that magnitude.
City dominated possession and had the bulk of the chances but, other than an Ilkay Gündogan opportunity that he rather scuffed at Kasper Schmeichel, City’s threat was limited before half-time.
Restricting City to long-range efforts – a deflected Benjamin Mendy strike, a snapshot from Kevin De Bruyne, a couple of free-kicks – particularly without either first-choice holding player suggested Rodgers’s tweak had worked.
Or at least it had worked as far as anything can against City. Against them, even when they are not quite at their sharpest, the flow can seem relentless. There will always be chances. Schmeichel made one exceptional save low to his left to deny De Bruyne and then beat away Sergio Agüero’s 728 nd-minute penalty, awarded by VAR after Dennis Praet had blocked Gündogan’s drive with a raised elbow. It was the fifth penalty City have missed of their last seven.
But the goal did eventually arrive, fired home by the substitute Gabriel Jesus with 11 minutes remaining after a surging run from Mahrez. Whether it matters is an entirely different issue.