What a memorable evening at the Community Stadium, with Brentford punching above their weight despite having to field a makeshift side against the Premier League champions. No wonder head coach Thomas Frank expressed his pride in what he described as ‘a masterclass in defending’, restricting the visitors to just three shots on target while breakaways full of promise by the Bees constantly threatened to snatch a point.
Would it be deserved had they done so? It is impossible to disregard City’s domination in terms of possession – 76 per cent – and the wonderful fluidity of much of their football. But the Bees were missing six players who regularly start for the first team yet conceded only once to a star-studded team that earlier in the season thrashed Leeds United 7-0 and on Boxing Day put five past the Leicester City keeper.
Call this a draw, except of course it wasn’t. A perfectly directed Kevin De Bruyne cross that was met by Phil Foden with the sweetest of first-touch volleys made sure of that after just sixteen minutes.
Images above: Final fine adjustments for City (left), Eyes on the ball – Ivan Toney closes on the City defence (right)
Only a minute before, the Bees had so-closely gone a goal up, full-back Joãl Cancelo nodding the ball clear of the line after keeper Moraes Ederson could only push away a diverted Yoane Wissa cross. This after Mathias Jensen had seen Ederson straying from his line and smacked a ball from a little inside the City half that sadly drifted off-target.
If City were bemused by the skill and resilience of their opposition, they didn’t let in show. While admiring Brentford’s tenacity, many in the stands harboured nagging suspicions that City, who could at any time call the ever goal-hungry Raheem Sterling from the bench, had plenty left up their sky-blue sleeves.
As it was, the pattern of the game did not change: City in command, Brentford breaking free like a frisky terrier whenever the opportunity arose. The visitors did manage to get the ball into the net; twice more, in fact, the first patently offside, the second judged so by the VAR. Brentford continued to hunt the elusive equaliser, but even when Sergi Canós – a natural terrier himself – was substituted for Wissa, they couldn’t penetrate a defence as competent as their own.
As legs began to tire on both sides, a cluster of fouls drew the attention of referee David Coote. This drew the attention, in turn, of the home fans, who thought little of Mr Coote and made this clear with vocal disappointment expressed with increasing volume. The referee, whose reluctance to issue any yellow cards whatsoever despite pleas from both sides, was unmoved.
Images above: Clash of two tireless personalities: Brentford’s Thompson v City’s Fernandinho hit the deck (left), Frank v Pepe: both managers vociferous from the sidelines (right)
And so, with the technical area coaching of both Frank and Pep Guardiola stretching their own vocal cords, this highly-competitive match – the last of the year – drew to a close. The visitors went home with the spoils, the points that gave them an eight-point cushion at the top of the League, and for Brentford a performance of enormous character that will do their reputation no harm at all.
Special plaudits go to Jensen, in the absence of the suspended Christian Nørgaard for once almost running the midfield, Dominic Thompson, erasing from his mind the memory of a dismal match at Brighton until limping off to be replaced by Saman Ghoddos, and Ivan Toney, once again in the thick of it all, including the heart of the defence when required.
Earlier on, Thomas Frank had said, ‘I fully believe we can get something out of the game’ and ‘I massively believe our fans will be bang on it – they need to be so fantastic to encourage us through the game because it is football and anything can happen.’ He also said, I reminded my mate Charlie, that he had never met Guardiola – ‘It’s going to be a very good experience to meet him and face his team.’
‘Well, two out of three ain’t bad,’ said Charlie.
Brentford: Fernández; Pinnock, Jansson, Sorenson; Roerslev, Baptiste, Jensen, Onyeka (substitute Bidstrup), Thompson (sub Ghoddos); Wissa (sub Canós), Toney.
Manchester City: Ederson; Cancelo, Rúben Dias, Laporte, Aké; De Bruyne, Fernandinho. Bernardo Silva; Gabriel Jesus, Grealish, Foden.
Bill Hagerty is a contributing editor of the Bees United supporters’ group.
Photographs Liz Vercoe.