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Manchester City Grind Out Vital Win at Nottingham Forest to Keep Title Pressure on Arsenal

NOTTINGHAM, England – On a day when Manchester City were far from their free-flowing best, Pep Guardiola’s unconvincing and ‘unstoppables’ still found a way to grind out a crucial 2-0 victory over Nottingham Forest to keep their Premier League title hopes fully alive. While this performance at the City Ground scarcely represented a glorious demonstration of the champions’ attacking philosophy, the hard-fought three points closed the gap on leaders Arsenal back to five ahead of the Gunners’ massive North London derby against Tottenham later on Sunday.

Depleted by injuries and battling illness, City looked vulnerable for large stretches against the spirited hosts fighting for top-flight survival. Yet even when pushed to their limits by Steve Cooper’s men, the champions’ world-class quality ultimately shone through when it mattered most.

A superb delivery from the peerless Kevin De Bruyne found Josko Gvardiol’s head to break the deadlock late in the first half. Then, after withstanding sustained Forest pressure, Erling Haaland came off the bench to deliver the crushing blow with a typically clinical finish in the 71st minute to seal City’s 2-0 victory. 

“We had to really dig in today,” Guardiola admitted. “Forest had a lot of quality and played with bravery. They are so aggressive and made it such a difficult game at this stage of the season when we’ve had a lot of matches piling up.”

Indeed, the circumstances could hardly have been more daunting for the defending champions making the treacherous trip to the City Ground. De Bruyne, Haaland, Jack Grealish and summer signing Manuel Akanji were the only regular starters available from the outset, with Guardiola fielding a patched-together lineup featuring fringe players like Stefan Ortega, Sergio Gomez and Cole Palmer from the opening whistle.  

Still, the understudies started brightly and should’ve taken an early lead when Ortega’s long ball over the top found an unmarked Julian Alvarez, but the Argentine fired wide of the near post with the goal gaping. Forest had their own golden opportunity moments later as Morgan Gibbs-White raced in alone but could only shoot straight at Ortega when one-on-one.

That set the tone for an intense, wide-open first half wherein both sides created chances but were ultimately let down by a lack of composure in the final third. While City enjoyed the bulk of possession, Forest had no problem countering at speed to get in behind the makeshift City backline.

The hosts will bemoan not taking at least one of the opportunities that fell to Gibbs-White and Brennan Johnson before the half-hour mark. Their profligacy was finally punished in the 32nd minute from an unlikely source.

De Bruyne’s out-swinging corner from the right seemed headed for the towering figure of Haaland at the back post, only for Gvardiol to get his head to the cross first. With Keylor Navas rooted to his line, the Croatian center-back’s glancing near-post effort had just enough weight to squirm over the goal line before the Nottingham Forest goalkeeper could claw it out.

The Forest faithful must have felt a sickening sense of deja vu after more calamitous set-piece defending cost them dearly yet again. Guardiola’s men have struggled at times this season to put opponents away, and sure enough, the hosts regrouped at halftime and came roaring back into the contest.  

Gibbs-White and Neco Williams both had golden opportunities to equalize within minutes of the restart, with the former’s diving header pushed aside by Ortega before Williams dragged his shot just wide when clean through. Guardiola turned to Haaland in the 67th minute to provide a much-needed spark, and the Norwegian superstar produced the goods in typically ruthless fashion.

Alvarez, City’s lone bright spot in the first half, turned provider by sliding a perfectly weighted pass into the path of the rampaging Haaland. Taking one clinical touch to set himself from just outside the box, the Premier League’s top scorer then fired an unstoppable low strike across Navas and into the far corner to make it 2-0 after 71 minutes.  

“That second goal opened up the game again. It’s one of the few chances City got all night, but with someone like Haaland, that’s all it takes,” Cooper lamented. “I’m gutted for the lads because the effort levels were brilliant. But when you get opportunities like we did, you absolutely have to take them at this level.”

Indeed, Forest will rue letting yet another potential statement result slip through their fingers. Chelsea and Leicester both dropped points at the City Ground in recent weeks in large part due to poor finishing, a recurring issue now threatening to doom Nottingham Forest’s improbable bid for Premier League survival.

Despite their poor showing, City still had to scrap and claw their way to the final whistle, with De Bruyne continuing to orchestrate proceedings amid a lack of genuine quality service behind Haaland. Time finally ran out on the valiant home side, who saw their four-match unbeaten run come to a halt in agonizing fashion.

For City, the focus now turns toward the finishing kick in pursuit of Arsenal. These are the types of victories champions routinely grind out as the finish line comes into view. They may not have clicked into their trademark gear against Forest, but Guardiola’s men still found their way over the line with relative comfort in the end.

“It was a great victory, very important for us,” the Catalan coach said. “We have a long week now to recover and prepare properly for the run-in and FA Cup final against United.”

That highly-anticipated cup final against their local rivals could prove the first piece of a potential City double. However, the Premier League remains the priority, and with Arsenal having slipped up in dramatic fashion at home to Spurs earlier on Sunday, City will be just two points back when they next take the pitch against Everton next weekend.

If the defeat proves a blip for Mikel Arteta’s young side, City are in prime position to pounce once again in the coming weeks. For all of their struggles and shortcomings against Forest, the reigning champions demonstrated their knack for securing maximum points even on an off-day.

“Sometimes it’s not going to be beautiful,” De Bruyne said. “We have to fight and show the character that makes winning titles possible.”  

There’s still a long way to go, and nothing is decided in this two-horse title race. But Guardiola knows from experience that these types of grind-out results on the road can be season-defining when the final trophy counts are tallied.

City don’t have to be at their brilliant best every week, they just need to keep churning out ugly wins and let their world-class talents eventually make the difference. With games rapidly dwindling, the champions aren’t leaving anything to chance in pursuit of yet another Premier League crown.

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