Manchester City 1 Middlesbrough 1
Pep Guardiola laughed as he was asked, not for the first time in recent weeks, about the intensity of the Premier League.
“I know you want me to say that the Premier League is the hardest in the world,” he said. “Every time you are waiting for that.
“You have to be so proud. You want to hear that the Premier League is the most difficult. Of course it is difficult.”
Manchester City’s manager is weary of fielding questions about the demands of English football. Having managed in La Liga and the Bundesliga, he is well placed to argue that Europe’s top leagues are as demanding as each other.
Perhaps, though, he is also concerned about the possibility of his players using the perceived toughness of the Premier League as an excuse.
Against Barcelona in the Champions League on Tuesday, City were superb.
Against Middlesbrough, they were a puzzle. Utterly dominant for 45 minutes, Guardiola’s team lost their way after half-time. Yet still they should have won.
It was a mixed afternoon for Sergio Aguero, who has been both scoring and missing freely this season. A neat close-range finish from Kevin de Bruyne’s fine low cross, shortly before half-time, gave the Argentina international his 150th goal for City.
As the game moved into its closing stages, though, Aguero slotted high and wide when free 15 yards from goal. It was a miss that would not have mattered had De Bruyne not also failed to score as a Victor Valdes error left him with a significant chunk of the goal to aim at.
Even then, City would still have won had their defence not lapsed in the first minute of stoppage time, allowing Marten De Roon to charge in unattended and power home a headed equaliser from George Friend’s inviting cross from the left. For the third successive Premier League home match, City had drawn 1-1 against a team they would have been expected to beat; first Everton, then Southampton, now Middlesbrough.
Each of those draws has carried a tale of attacking profligacy and defensive slackness.
“We are so disappointed because we have dropped six points playing at home,” defender Pablo Zabaleta said.
“It’s something we would be worried about if we were not creating chances or were conceding too many goals.
“To win those games, maybe if you have 10 chances, you have got to be more clinical to secure the win. That’s how we were against Barcelona. We took our chances on the night and it made the difference.
“When you have a game like that in midweek, which is so emotionally and physically draining, it is hard. We saw the problem in the second half when we dropped a little of our intensity. But we were still controlling the ball. Middlesbrough pushed a bit more in the second half, but I can’t remember too many chances for them.”
Middlesbrough’s performance was a curious one. In the first half, they lacked ambition, content to sit deep, absorb pressure and lump the odd hopeful ball in the vague direction of Alvaro Negredo, as if they believed the best they could hope for was a narrow defeat.
Valdes made fine saves from Aguero and Silva to keep the game goalless for 43 minutes. City’s goal prompted some much-needed reflection in the visitors’ dressing room, as De Roon acknowledged.
The midfielder said: “We said at half-time: ‘Be yourselves. Don’t be afraid. Play with confidence. Make mistakes. Do whatever you have to do.’”
It worked. Negredo set the tone with an audacious lob from the halfway line, touched over by a backpedalling Claudio Bravo, who then raced bravely from his line to dive at the feet of Adam Forshaw moments later.
While Zabaleta is correct to suggest that Middlesbrough created few clear chances, they had given City’s defence enough jittery moments to merit a point, secured by De Roon’s first goal since a £12m (€13.4m) summer move from Atalanta.
The draw, which follows a recent point at Arsenal, suggests that Aitor Karanka’s side are starting to feel at home in the Premier League following last season’s promotion.
Forshaw still thinks that Guardiola’s team have a mark of champions about them though, for all their recent stumbles. As a boyhood Liverpool fan, though, the Middlesbrough midfielder would not mind seeing the Premier League title go to Anfield.
“We haven’t played Liverpool yet but I’ve been really impressed with them,” he said. “I genuinely believe they are title contenders along with City and Arsenal, but there are probably five or six teams with a chance. City, though, are as good as you’re going to get.”
MAN CITY (4-1-4-1): Bravo 6; Zabaleta 6, Stones 6, Kolarov 6, Clichy 6; Fernandinho 6; Navas 6 (A Garcia 86), De Bruyne 7, Gundogan 7 (Nolito 74, 6), Silva 6; Aguero 7 (Iheanacho 90).
Subs not used: Caballero, Kompany, Maffeo, Sane.
MIDDLESBROUGH (4-1-4-1): Valdes 8; Barragan 7, Gibson 7, Chambers 7, Friend 7; Clayton 7; Traore 7 (Stuani 90), De Roon 7, Forshaw 6, Downing 6 (Fischer 78, 6); Negredo 6.
Subs not used: Guzan, Bernardo, Fabio, Leadbitter, Nugent.
Referee: K Friend (Leicestershire) – 8
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved