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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Pep Guardiola admits Sergio Aguero 'not 100 per cent' fit, but Argentine once again on target

Guardiola says City striker is nursing a heel injury that requires careful management, meaning he stayed on longer than planned in 2-0 win over Brighton

Sergio Aguero scored City's second goal against Brighton, his 15th strike in 11 games at the Etihad Stadium. Reuters
Sergio Aguero scored City's second goal against Brighton, his 15th strike in 11 games at the Etihad Stadium. Reuters

“We were lucky,” said Pep Guardiola. He was not talking about the result or the margin of victory. Fortune favoured Manchester City only in a question of timing. Sergio Aguero has a heel injury that requires managing. The plan was for him to play 55-60 minutes. There were 64 on the clock when Gabriel Jesus was preparing to come on.

And then Aguero, in personal overtime, made his valedictory contribution to the afternoon. It came in typical form, a 15th goal in 11 home league games meaning only Wayne Rooney and Thierry Henry have found the net more often in the Premier League for one club and, more immediately that Brighton & Hove Albion were beaten. “At 1-0, you never know what could happen,” said Albion manager Chris Hughton, though a frank admission followed. “Not that we deserved anything.”

“He scored at the right moment,” smiled Guardiola, who promptly removed, and hugged, City’s record scorer. “Sergio is not 100 per cent. We have two games left before the international break. Hopefully he can do the two and then recover.”

Not that Aguero appeared troubled when he struck. He darted away from defenders, found Raheem Sterling in the inside-left channel, accelerated to accept the return pass and steered in a low shot. “We could have stopped it at source,” Hughton lamented.

Stopping City, he accepted, is altogether harder. “You can get beat big here,” he said. “They have probably still not got into their best form yet.” They have not needed to. The scoreline was not spectacular, but this was an illustration of how City have normalised winning.

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A 23rd victory in 26 league games at the Etihad Stadium was secured with a professionalism and a proficiency that felt unsurprising. If this was not exceptional, it nevertheless featured excellence. City showcased Guardiola’s football by scoring two terrific team goals that still included individual quality. They did not touch the heights, but the result never seemed in doubt on a day when their supporters felt sufficiently confident to turn their attentions elsewhere.

A couple of minutes after Aguero struck, there was a chorus of “Don’t sack Mourinho”. Even at 0-0, the home faithful entertained themselves chorusing about two of their alumni: Pablo Zabaleta, the instigator of West Ham United’s opener against Manchester United, and Manuel Pellegrini, who got the better of Jose Mourinho.

Perhaps a current favourite deserved to be celebrated rather more. Last season featured a series of late winners and equalisers from Raheem Sterling. This year, he has tended to strike earlier. He has broken the deadlock in three games already, all inside half an hour. That capacity to make something happen came in handy.

Manchester City players congratulate Raheem Sterling after the England forward gave City a 2-0 lead against Bright. EPA
Manchester City players congratulate Raheem Sterling after the England forward gave City the lead against Brighton. EPA

Brighton ensured it was a quiet start, one in keeping with Hughton’s persona of low-profile, organised competence. They packed the defence and, when on the ball, City’s formation became 2-3-5, an ultra-modern manager rewinding the clock 100 years. “You have to learn to attack 10 players,” Guardiola said. Some old-fashioned wing play brought the breakthrough, Leroy Sane outflanking Brighton with eviscerating speed and delivering the low centre. Sterling slid in to finish.

But for a fine save from Mat Ryan, he would have had a second. City could have had more. Shane Duffy blocked Aguero’s audacious early overhead kick. Sane headed over. Ryan excelled to save a fierce effort from David Silva and fielded long-range shots from Fernandinho, Oleksandr Zinchenko and the substitute Riyad Mahrez. An eventual tally of 28 shots to four was a sign of City’s superiority.

While Brighton claimed a penalty, Hughton argued Fernandinho was guilty of handball, their lack of chances pleased Guardiola the most. “We only conceded one shot on target,” he added. “We cannot forget they beat United and they played so good at Anfield, so that team is a serious team.”

City, meanwhile, are a seriously good one.