A lacklustre Man City side edged out strugglers Brighton at the Etihad, thanks to a precise finish by Phil Foden following good footwork by the England international.
City have been back towards their dominant form recently, so many might have expected a hatful of goals and a cruise to victory, especially with Brighton missing influential enforcer Yves Bissouma due to suspension.
As it turned out, that was not to be the case at all.
The game started slowly, with Brighton keeping their shape high up the field and restricting City’s passing effectively. The only early chance fell to de Bruyne on the 15 minute mark, with his close-range shot following good play by Ilkay Gundogan smothered by Robert Sanchez.
Indeed, City created nothing whatsoever until the final five minutes of the half, save for when Sanchez picked up a blatant Adam Webster backpass under no pressure to hand the home side a chance. Luckily for the Spaniard, de Bruyne’s shot cannoned away off Alexis Mac Allister.
Brighton created next to nothing in the first half, with a Leandro Trossard curler from just inside the box going well wide probably their only shot. However, from their own corner, City very nearly took the lead.
Ederson caught Trossard’s delivery, with the ball quickly played out. Foden found himself running at an exposed Brighton defence, and his clever reverse pass to de Bruyne saw the Belgian’s shot beaten away at his near post by Sanchez.
City had improved as the half had worn on, and finally scored the opener with just a minute of the first period remaining.
Gundogan played through the lines to de Bruyne, who found Foden cutting in from the left. His first touch was perfect, taking Webster out of the game, and after looking up and seeing Sanchez pre-empting a shot across goal, simply placed it into his near post perfectly.
Half time: Manchester City 1-0 Brighton
The second half again started slowly, with neither side able to create. The first notable moment came as Foden took on Joel Veltman inside the box, with the Dutch defender pushing an off-balance Foden to the floor while catching his foot in the process.
You have seen them given.
The first shot actually came from Brighton, with Davy Propper catching a volley flush from the edge of the box following a corner, but luckily for City the shot was straight down Ederson’s throat.
The snapshot seemed to spark the hosts into life, with chances suddenly appearing. A long ball found Riyad Mahrez in on goal, played on by an out positioned Dan Burn. The Algerian should have scored, but instead placed his shot narrowly wide of the far post.
Minutes later, City came even closer.
Space was suddenly available around the Brighton box, with Gundogan the next to be played in. His shot across goal was well saved by Sanchez, with the ball bouncing awkwardly to Bernardo Silva. One touch to control, one touch to nutmeg a defender, then one touch to hammer a shot off the face of the post and away.
It was brilliant play by the Portuguese winger, and fully merited a goal.
After Mac Allister curled narrowly over from 20 yards, City once again created two presentable opportunities. First, Joao Cancelo slalomed through three defenders brilliantly, but then went for power over placement in slamming a shot at Sanchez’s chest. As the ball came back in, de Bruyne cut in from the right and forced a smart save from Sanchez down low.
With around half an hour remaining, it looked like City would power on to several more goals. Instead, following substitutions from both sides, the game suddenly swung for the away side.
The hosts were suddenly unable to pass the ball, with the team looking unbalanced with Gabriel Jesus at left midfield, and Brighton were suddenly dominant with the ball. However, Brighton have a very familiar failing. They often look good, they often play pretty well, but they often do not look like scoring.
It was the case again today. Neal Maupay had a chance to chip Ederson from 25 yards following sloppy defending, but hesitated and allowed John Stones to make an excellent recovery tackle. In terms of shots, there was simply nothing to report. Even with so much of the ball around the City box, there was no cutting edge.
City should have made the game safe in added time, as a shocking back-header saw de Bruyne beat Sanchez to the ball and get flattened by the stopper. Blatant penalty. De Bruyne to take?
Nope, for reasons unknown to humanity, the ball went to Raheem Sterling. Any City fan knows Sterling is a pretty appalling choice for a penalty taker. His numerous misses and relatively few successes prove that.
So it came as no surprise as Sterling apparently aimed at a pigeon five yards above the bar and missed. The ball might have even been off camera when it was level with the goal, such was the distance.
In the end it did not matter, but City need to sort out penalty takers. If it is de Bruyne who is first choice, give it de Bruyne. Do not mess about at 1-0 up.
I can guarantee the first choice is not Raheem Sterling.
The win sees City up to third, still with a game in hand on many around them, while Brighton remain 17th but having played three more games than 18th placed Fulham. They seem to play too well to go down, but if they do not start winning games, that may yet end up happening.
Full time: Manchester City 1-0 Brighton
Man of the Match: Phil Foden
No outstanding performances here, but the youngster takes it for his well-taken goal as well as his dangerous movement throughout the game. Come the end of the season, that goal may prove very important, in what is shaping up to be the most competitive title race in years.