Gabriel Jesus saved Pep Guardiola from severe embarrassment on Teesside, the young Brazilian’s late header earning Manchester City a scarcely deserved point as Middlesbrough finally remembered how to score.
It left Guardiola’s side clinging on to fourth place, a point in front of Manchester United and Steve Agnew’s Boro agonising about what might have been. Although arithmetically still in with a chance of salvation, realistically they are all but doomed to relegation, with this mini-revival proving horribly tantalising.
“We deserved to win,” Guardiola said, to mild surprise. “They created two chances and were fighting to survive but we were the better team.” If City’s manager was frustrated to see his hopes of finishing third receding after “a most difficult game”, home fans felt slightly cheated, their overall sense of the afternoon’s cruelty exacerbated by the slightly contentious circumstances surrounding the award of the penalty for City’s first equaliser. Not that the consequent disappointment should detract from Boro’s best performance of the season.
Few could have predicted it when, with 45 seconds gone, Jesus very nearly scored from close range, the newly fit forward just failing to get a sufficiently strong contact on a ball sent whizzing across the box by Sergio Agüero. Little did anyone know that would represent their most menacing first-half moment as their back three failed to provide the desired attacking springboard.
Agnew is a Guardiola disciple and enthuses that he has “admired him and his philosophy for years” but such fandom was temporarily parked as Boro’s interim manager urged his side forward. This bold strategy soon saw Álvaro Negredo slicing a Fabio centre across goal. It seemed the ball required only the slightest of touches to be diverted beyond Willy Caballero but no one was in quite the right place at quite the right time.
If that could be an epitaph for Boro’s season, Agnew’s players were not minded to surrender. Closing City down industriously, concentrating assiduously and winning their fair share of tackles, they ensured Guardiola had more than the capriciously swirling wind to worry about.
Persistent gusts left the tail of City manager’s long black, designer-cut raincoat flapping almost as frantically as his arms. With his side yet to test Brad Guzan, he had genuine reason for anxiety. It proved justified when Negredo gave Boro the lead against his former club. George Friend’s interception precipitated a quick break which concluded with Stewart Downing cutting back, Friend dummying and Negredo, who seemed to slip as he shaped to shoot, directing a slightly scuffed left-foot shot in off a post.
The time had come for Guardiola to press a few tactical buttons and, sure enough, a recalibrated City emerged for the second period reconfigured with a back four and Kevin De Bruyne relocated to the left. With his side continuing to malfunction and still without a shot on target, only four minutes of the second half had elapsed before Guardiola hauled Aleix García and Gaël Clichy off, introducing Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling.
Initially this infusion of pace and width had limited effect: despite City monopolising possession and attacking in numbers, Boro held creditably firm until Kevin Friend awarded that controversial penalty.
Bursting into the box at speed, Sané accelerated into Marten de Roon, who looked to be merely standing his ground, before the winger collapsed dramatically. Given that there was clearly contact, possibly exaggerated by Sané conveniently leaving a leg trailing behind him, the referee’s decision seemed understandable but it was hard to see what the midfielder could have done to avoid it.
Boro protested long and vociferously but, once calm was restored, Agüero sent Guzan the wrong way courtesy of an accomplished right-footed kick lifted into the top corner. “There’s a sense of injustice,” Agnew said. “The player went down very easily. It wasn’t a penalty. Marten’s a very intelligent boy and he’s not one for making contact in the penalty area. The referee didn’t have a clear view but, if you give them, you’ve got to be 100 per cent certain.”
Undeterred, though, Boro again took the lead, exposing City’s defensive vulnerabilities in the process. When Adama Traoré’s pace won a free-kick and Caballero could only parry Downing’s subtly curved delivery, his defenders, and Vincent Kompany in particular, failed to cope with the fallout. It meant Negredo was able to propel the ball across the box for Calum Chambers, excellent at both ends, to squeeze it home.
With the decibel level hitting new heights the Riverside was rocking only for such reawakened optimism to be cruelly punctured by a swiftly taken free-kick, a chipped Agüero cross and Jesus’s header. “I think we should have seen the game out,” said Agnew, who might just have earned himself a chance to manage Boro in the Championship. “But I’m so proud of the lads.”