Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola cannot bare to watch as his team misses another chance during Tuesday’s 1-1 English Premier League draw with West Bromwich Albion. AFP


Pep’s men say congested schedule to blame for stuttering start to season

MANCHESTER, England-Ilkay Gundogan blamed a congested calendar in a unique season for Manchester City’s failure to match the standards it has set under Pep Guardiola after a 1-1 draw with West Bromwich Albion dealt another blow to its title challenge.

Gundogan appeared to have opened the floodgates in the 30th minute, but a Ruben Dias own goal two minutes before the interval proved costly as City’s problems in front of goal continued in the second half.

City has won just five of its opening 12 league games of the season, a far cry from the combined 198 points it registered in two title-winning campaigns under Guardiola in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Even last season when finishing a distant runner-up to Liverpool, City scored 102 league goals, but the stale domination that has characterized a lackluster campaign was in evidence all night as it struggled to break through West Brom’s deep-lying defense.

“We had great years where we played great football in the past so we set the level high,” said Gundogan. “All over Europe all the big teams are struggling with the tight fixtures and it’s not going to be easier in the next weeks.

“That’s an explanation why it is not always as easy as the expectations people have for us. We are not machines but we also know when we have not played our best game.”

City could have moved to within three points of leaders Tottenham and Liverpool, who meet on Wednesday. Instead Guardiola’s men edged up to fifth on goal difference, five points off the top.

“These games you have to win, we know it, so we drop points,” said Guardiola. “It’s not far away the top of the league, but you have to win games. Still we are in early December and there are a lot of games to play.”

City enjoyed 77 percent possession and had 26 shots on goal, but West Brom’s defense was not breached until a late flurry of crosses from Kevin De Bruyne produced two stunning saves from Sam Johnstone to deny Gundogan and Raheem Sterling.

“We created enough to win the game. We did everything but in the end you have to score,” added Guardiola. “We have to be optimistic that in the end we will score goals.”

West Brom had the first big chance of the game when the ball ricocheted off Joao Cancelo into the path of Karlan Grant and he forced Ederson into a fine save low to his left.

City’s probing was finally rewarded on the half-hour mark when a Sterling cut-back was fired home from the edge of the area by Germany international Gundogan.

But the host shot itself in the foot by conceding for the first time in seven games two minutes before halftime as it failed to clear a freekick and Semi Ajayi’s shot deflected in off City’s Dias.

It was one-way traffic after the break as City set up camp in the West Brom half but lacked the imagination or pace to open up the visitor.

De Bruyne was the most likely candidate to produce the inspiration his side needed but twice Johnstone denied the Belgian with low saves to his left.

Guardiola introduced City’s all-time record scorer, Sergio Aguero, into the fray for the final 15 minutes, but the Argentine’s lack of match sharpness after a series of injuries showed as he slashed wide the sort of chance he has so often buried.

Johnstone’s heroics in stoppage time to deny Gundogan and Sterling earned West Brom a valuable draw that moved the Baggies to within two points of safety.

AFP