Manchester City may have been without Erling Haaland but Pep Guardiola’s side are so awash with talent that it just meant another of their stars came to the fore. City’s pass-o-meter was almost off the scale – Guardiola’s side completed almost twice as many as a Leicester side set up to frustrate and flummox – but in the end Kevin De Bruyne’s majestic second-half free-kick, which cannoned in off a post, proved the difference as the champions moved top of the pile.
Guardiola, in a green hoodie, dark jeans and white trainers, spent the final couple of minutes crouched on the edge of his technical area but Leicester’s late attempts to turn up the heat would not deny De Bruyne the satisfaction of being the match-winner. “We have had seven seasons together,” Guardiola said of the midfielder. “Except sleep together we have done everything. I know him quite well so nothing’s going to change my opinion of him or what he has done for this club [and] for me personally. But I have the duty in my job to say: ‘I want more.’ We want this Kevin, we need this Kevin.”
City had a brief fright in second-half stoppage time when John Stones’s headed clearance pinballed off Rúben Dias and just wide of Ederson’s goal but the visitors swept upfield on the counter from the resulting corner. De Bruyne raced down the right flank and sent a teasing ball across the six-yard box – prime Haaland territory – but his cross just eluded Ilkay Gündogan. Guardiola said Haaland could return from a foot injury against Fulham next weekend.
Guardiola suggested Jamie Vardy played akin to a defensive midfielder, painting a picture of the task facing his team. Space was at a premium as Leicester stationed 11 blue shirts behind the ball for long periods. He described how Julián Álvarez, who replaced Haaland in one of six changes from Tuesday’s draw at Borussia Dortmund, was surrounded by three centre-backs, one of whom was Caglar Soyuncu, in from the deep freeze to make his first league start since May. “Leicester defended incredibly well, so deep, with a lot of people and it’s difficult,” Guardiola said.
Leicester had to work overtime in their 5-4-1 shape to merely make it into the City half and when they did it was something of a cause for celebration. Midway through the first half Youri Tielemans fizzed a pass into Vardy centrally but the striker was soon hounded and shifted the ball on to Harvey Barnes, who saw a shot parried by Ederson. James Maddison ambled towards the corner flag to take the subsequent set piece, determined to enjoy a rare breather.
“When you play City, you’ve almost got to take your medicine,” Maddison said. “There are times when you don’t feel like you touch the ball for 10 minutes but that’s what happens against arguably the best team in the world.”
Danny Ward made smart stops to deny Bernardo Silva and Álvarez in a one-sided first half but three minutes into the second Leicester’s stubborn resistance was broken by an unstoppable strike. Nampalys Mendy replaced Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall at half-time and his first contribution was a cheap foul on Jack Grealish 25 yards from goal. What happened next was nothing short of sublime.
De Bruyne took a moment to compose himself as Maddison lay down behind Leicester’s wall then flighted a sumptuous right-foot free-kick in off an upright. Warming up on the sidelines, three of City’s substitutes had the best view in the house and all three applauded as the ball pinged in off one post and nestled in the opposite corner of the Leicester net. Rodri, shirt tucked into his shorts, hoisted De Bruyne into the air.
Tielemans was neat in possession throughout and he went close to finding a peach of an equaliser four minutes later. Maddison sprayed a corner out to the edge of the D and Tielemans was there to meet his cross. Tielemans smacked a spinning ball goalwards but Ederson starfished in the City goal and helped the ball on to the crossbar with his left hand to gasps from the crowd. Brendan Rodgers arched his back in frustration.
“We practised it in training and I don’t think he [Tielemans] hit one that sweet,” Maddison said. “But there are fine margins in the Premier League, unfortunately.”