With bruised knuckles and bleeding fingertips, Manchester City desperately clawed their way out of the abyss against West Ham to ensure the title race remains in their hands with one game remaining of the season. Pep Guardiola’s side had arrived at the London Stadium knowing victory would all but complete their coronation as Premier League champions but instead found themselves trailing by two goals at half-time, having seen Jarrod Bowen unravel their dominance over the course of two devastating counter-attacks.
Defeat would have represented a full-scale disaster for Manchester City, potentially leaving Liverpool able to pip them on goal difference. But Jack Grealish’s deflected volley alleviated some of the panic just three minutes into the second half before Vladimir Coufal’s own goal set up a finish of pulsating drama. Riyad Mahrez had the chance to seal a spectacular second-half comeback and cement City’s glory, but his penalty was well-saved as Lukasz Fabianski ensured that while the title remains City’s to lose, their grip is far from guaranteed and they will likely have to defeat Aston Villa on the final day.
Sentimentality reigned ahead of kick-off at the London Stadium as Mark Noble received a standing ovation from the crowd. Staunch pragmatist David Moyes wasn’t victim to those emotions though, with the captain kept on the bench for the final home game of his 18-year career. Nor were Manchester City willing to indulge any sense of occasion, with just four points required to repeat as Premier League champions.
Pep Guardiola’s side were aided by Fernandinho and Aymeric Laporte being passed fit, and City soon set about suffocating the life out of West Ham. They dominated possession to an oppressive degree, constantly probing for gaps, and clinically isolated Michail Antonio on the rare occasions West Ham were able to free themselves from the stranglehold.
But for all their control, City lacked the clinical edge to cut West Ham open. It was Kevin De Bruyne who did so with the precision of a razor blade against Wolves last week, but here their shots were being restricted to the edge of the box, with Rodri’s effort taking a wicked deflection off Craig Dawson before sailing over the crossbar. Fernandinho came close with a drive of his own, while Gabriel Jesus curled a shot just wide of the far post.
It was a war being waged through intricacy, but then City’s undoing required little more than brutal simplicity and bullish determination. Fabianski hoofed long, West Ham won the second ball and Pablo Fornals hooked a delicate chip over City’s high line. Bowen streaked away from Oleksandr Zinchenko and Fernandinho, rounded Ederson and retained his composure to finish from a tight angle.
The second followed on the stroke of half-time and carried many a similarity. Again Fabianski went long, Tomas Soucek won the header, Antonio provided the clip in behind and Bowen raced clear of Zinchenko again before finishing calmly to devastating effect. A match that had started in a vein of crushing inevitability had instead amounted to a perfectly executed smash-and-grab. For City, it was something close to a full-scale crisis.
Guardiola sent his players out early for the second half, staring grimly from the dugout as though watching his world burn. But the building sense of panic was eased after just three minutes. Grealish had seen a lot of the ball in the first half without leaving any great impression but, when the ball fell to him from a corner, his well-struck volley took a nick of Dawson’s knee and confounded Fabianski.
From that moment onwards, it became a question of how long West Ham could possibly withstand the weight of the avalanche on Fabianski’s goal. Jesus forced a save at the near-post before De Bruyne came close from a free-kick, but West Ham didn’t sink into their shell and remained dangerous on the break. Declan Rice had been typically brilliant and disciplined at the base of midfield but vacated his station in order to chase down the back-peddling Fernaninho on the halfway line. The pressure forced the Brazilian into a dreadful blind backpass that was seized on by Antonio, but the striker couldn’t show the same composure as Bowen and chipped his shot wide in the face of the onrushing Ederson.
They were made to rue that missed opportunity just minutes later. City’s second came courtesy of a bitter stroke of West Ham’s misfortune, but it was hardly underserved. Mahrez curled a free-kick into a dangerous position and, although no City players were immediately challenging him, Coufal panicked and miscued a header into his own net.
Bowen might have struck the winner and completed his hat-trick as the game took on a frenetic pace in the final 15 minutes, but Laporte made a terrific last-ditch block to deny the winger from close-range. That intervention was not as spectacular as what was to come from Fabianski, though. Dawson clumsily brought down Jesus in the box and, having initially waved away City’s appeals, the referee reversed his decision upon viewing the pitchside monitor. Mahrez struck his penalty well to Fabianski’s left but the goalkeeper guessed correctly and beat the ball away with conviction. It is the save that, at least to some extent, has kept the title race alive.