MANCHESTER, England — West Brom have never won a Premier League game at the Etihad Stadium and kicking off here 19th in the table and with just one win all season, they were never expected to start now. That said, it says everything about where Manchester City are at the moment that on Tuesday against the Baggies, they never looked likely to win, either.
It wasn’t until injury time that City began to fashion clear-cut chances to win the game but they found former Manchester United goalkeeper Sam Johnstone equal to point-blank headers from Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling and in the end had to settle for a 1-1 draw.
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It is not often during his reign that Pep Guardiola has needed more stoppage time and it was a testament to the way West Brom — who collected just their second away point this season — frustrated his team that he ended the night visibly begging fourth official Anthony Taylor for more than the granted four minutes. After Chelsea dropped points at Wolves, it was a chance to move level with Frank Lampard’s side with a game in hand but in the end, it was an opportunity missed ahead of a tricky trip to fourth-place Southampton on Saturday.
It is clear to Guardiola where the problem lies. Gundogan’s opener after half an hour was City’s 18th league goal of the season. At the same stage last season, they had already scored 35.
“You don’t have to be so clever to see the gap between this year and previous years,” Guardiola said afterward. “It is not confidence, Sergio Aguero is injured for four months, but we create chances, we are there we just can’t score.”
City brought on Aguero after 76 minutes but Bernardo Silva, Ferran Torres and Riyad Mahrez all remained on the bench as Guardiola opted to make only two of his three allotted changes. His two main goal threats, Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, were both on the pitch at the end but Aguero is still searching for his first league goal this season and Jesus hasn’t found the net for more than a month.
“We created enough to win the game, 26 shots I think, you just have to put the ball in, we are struggling with that.” said Guardiola.
“We have to be optimistic. You have to win games like this. We know it, we drop points. These are the ones you have to win. It’s not far away to the top of the league but you have to beat West Brom at home. There are a lot of games left.”
The one goal City did score was typical of Guardiola’s blueprint — Sterling reaching the byline before cutting back a cross to Gundogan — but the relentlessness of previous campaigns seems to be missing. The movement isn’t as sharp, the passing not as quick. Periods of the game drift in a way they never used to and although Johnstone made three good saves, West Brom’s defence did not walk off looking as if they had been run ragged. While a point at the Etihad will be seen as a bonus for Albion, it won’t ease the pressure on manager Slaven Bilic, who is under threat having overseen just one win in 13.
City’s night was summed up midway through the second half when Rodri collected the ball 25 yards out and without options darting around ahead of him, opted to blaze a shot into the stands to bring a scream of frustration from Guardiola on the touchline.
The home side’s lack of potency wouldn’t have mattered if they had managed to keep a club-record seventh straight clean sheet but Semi Ajayi put paid to that just before half-time with a scruffy shot that deflected in off Ruben Dias for an own goal. City are used to steamrollering West Brom, having won their last 13 meetings by an aggregate score of 37-9, but this time the onslaught didn’t arrive until it was too late. Of their 26 shots, only seven were on target and 13 corners all came to nothing.
“We didn’t create much in the first half, they had a lot of people back, we struggled to win the second balls,” said Guardiola.”In the second half, we did everything we just couldn’t score. This situation is weird for everyone. We deserved to win the game but we didn’t win it.”
City are still within touching distance of leaders Tottenham and Liverpool after a fifth draw of the season, but Guardiola will be left searching for solutions to the problems in front of goal before a hectic run of five games in 16 days over Christmas and New Year’s. Maybe it’s Aguero being fit enough to start a game for the first time since October or Torres playing more often as a central striker.
For the Spaniard, though, it is a simple message to his players: “You have to shoot one ball inside the net.” This season for City that has been easier said than done.