Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola said “you have to win this kind of game” after his side were held to a frustrating draw by struggling West Brom.
Baggies goalkeeper Sam Johnstone made two point-blank stoppage-time saves to deny City victory and leave Guardiola’s side sixth in the Premier League table, five points off the top.
“It will be a long season but if you want to be up there we have to win here and we could not do it,” he said.
“We created chances, we controlled it but you have to win. This game works on results.”
City seemed on course for a customary home win against West Brom when Ilkay Gundogan applied a first-time finish to Raheem Sterling’s cutback after half an hour.
But the midfielder’s first goal in 22 games was cancelled out before half-time when a volley on the turn from Semi Ajayi, which appeared to be going wide, deflected off Ruben Dias and wrong-footed City keeper Ederson.
It was the first goal City had conceded in 608 minutes in all competitions and was followed by a valiant backs-to-the-wall effort from Slaven Bilic’s visitors, who defended heroically.
It seems that the point may still not be enough to keep Bilic in the job, with the 52-year-old’s exit potentially coming as early as Wednesday.
Uncertainty over Bilic’s future has been fuelled by his admission there have been no talks over a new contract, with his current one due to expire in the summer.
Battling Baggies scrap for point
The visitors had lost each of their past nine visits to Etihad Stadium and hopes could not have been especially high on their latest trip, given they had won once all season and that success – at home to bottom club Sheffield United – was the only time they avoided defeat in a run of six matches.
Little wonder Bilic’s future is the topic of major debate – or that the Baggies boss looked edgy as he tried to urge his team on during an opening period that could hardly have been more one-sided.
City enjoyed 77% possession, yet at the start of the half came a golden chance that West Brom should have taken – and at the end of the first period, a scruffy one that they did.
With a restricted budget, Bilic pushed the Baggies board to pay Huddersfield £15m for striker Karlan Grant on deadline day.
A return of one goal from nine games before this one is not good enough – and he will not have many better chances than the one he had after seven minutes – straight in front of goal, 10 yards out, with only Ederson to beat.
Grant’s shot lacked conviction, was not close enough to the corner and allowed the keeper to save.
Ajayi’s deflected equaliser was unexpected, but it gave West Brom something to cling to. In partnership with Dara O’Shea, Ajayi was outstanding in the second half.
Despite offering no threat at the other end, the visitors’ collective effort was far better than anything previously produced in a season where they had conceded 25 goals in their first 12 games, more than any other side.
And Johnstone’s heroics at the end ensured the defenders’ efforts gained a tangible reward.
“We defended brilliantly, it’s a great point but more than that it shows we know what we have to do in every game,” Bilic said.
“We are defending for our lives, ready to die for each other on the pitch and that’s all I can ask.”
Offensive struggles for Guardiola’s City
City still have some truly great players but the losses of midfielder David Silva to Real Sociedad in the close season, and Sergio Aguero to injury for much of the campaign, have robbed them of key attacking threats.
For all their possession, clear chances were at a premium. Benjamin Mendy and Rodri were both off-target with efforts that could be classed as more hopeful than threatening.
Sterling’s inventiveness created Gundogan’s goal as he delayed his cutback just long enough to tee up the Germany midfielder in the perfect spot, but too often City chose the wrong option and ended up running into a red and yellow-shirted wall.
Johnstone denied Sterling after the interval with a smart reaction save but as desperate clearance followed desperate clearance and block followed block, City boss Pep Guardiola became more and more agitated.
At one point he almost resorted to chasing after the ball when it went out of play to try and maintain his side’s attacking momentum, and when fourth official Anthony Taylor was about to signal the minimum amount of additional time to be played, Guardiola amusingly stuck his head over the board, as if to say the number was wrong.
Back on the bench after a bout of gastroenteritis, the introduction of Aguero midway through the second period signalled fresh hope for City. But the Argentine missed his best chance three minutes from time – and former Manchester United keeper Johnstone did the rest.
“You don’t have to be so clever to see the gap between this year and previous years [in our results],” Guardiola said.
“It is not confidence, Sergio Aguero is injured for four months, but we create chances, we are there we just can’t score.”