After a break for FA Cup action it was back to Carrow Road for the serious business of the league once again. After some gloomy injury forecasts, there was a relatively familiar look to the City line up – a debut for Dimitris Giannoulous the main point for discussion.
But the brooding figure of City fans’ favourite ‘Colin’ on the opposition bench should have given a clue as to what lay ahead.
For the first 20 minutes, it looked like another game of City dominance was on the cards. Boro were way too open and the City players were able to pass their way through with ease. Mario Vrancic and Lukas Rupp both had opportunities to open the scoring but neither could get their efforts on target.
Middlesborough re-orgsanised, the front players dropping deeper, defenders pushing up congesting the middle of the pitch and denying City the space to breathe. The only recourse that the City players could find was for Grant Hanley to run the ball out of defence and try to land raking passes behind the defensive lines.
Love him or hate him (hate, obviously) Colin had done his homework. Todd Cantwell had a man-to-man shadow all game and Max Aarons was pushed back, preventing him getting forward and influencing the attack.
The most significant moment of the first half came 10 minutes before half time. Emi Buendia was on a surging cross-field run with Jonny Howson closing in on him. The ball ran away but Emi left a boot out for Howson to contact and a yellow was a result. No real intent or malice, and Emi was clearly frustrated. There cannot be a City fan who didn’t predict the rest of the story.
The second half started a little brighter for City. A couple of decent moves presented more of a threat to the Boro goal. Ben Gibson broke forward and played a ball into the box to find a great Giannoulous run. His cut back to Rupp was blocked for a corner.
Middlesborough had their moments too, Howson directing a header from a corner straight at Tim Krul.
Then on 66 minutes, the moment we were all dreading. George Saville pushed the ball way ahead, Emi started to slide in but put the brakes on, Saville then stuck his leg out too and there was a coming together. The ref waved play to continue but when the ball went out of play, he appeared to be influenced by the incandescent Saville to produce a second yellow.
From the front, it appeared to be a harsh decision, but the camera angle behind made it look much worse – presumably what the linesman saw.
It shows what an afternoon City were having that it was barely noticeable that they were down to 10 men at times. Przemysław Placheta, Onel Hernandez and Adam Idah came on to add pace, but apart from one fizzing shot across goal by Placheta, had little influence on the game.
A Boro free-kick in a dangerous position brought back memories of Derby, but City survived.
It pains me to say it, but City were outsmarted by Colin. Not allowed to dominate in midfield as they have on so many occasions, and with Aarons confined to defensive duties, City failed to produce an effort on target.
Perhaps the Covid outbreak has taken more out of some players than we imagine?
A final word on Giannoulous. He grew into the game as it went on. He made some good tackles, some good contributions in the final third but also looked to be bedding in with his new teammates – a few stray passes. He looks like an asset in the games ahead.