Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has reiterated that his side won’t go through the Premier League season unbeaten after their 18-game top-flight winning run was ended by a goalless draw at Crystal Palace.
City conceded an injury-time penalty at Selhurst Park but goalkeeper Ederson saved the spot-kick from Luka Milivojevic, prompting Match of the Day host Gary Lineker to claim Guardiola’s side has an “air of invincibility about them”.
The draw preserves their unbeaten league status this season and takes them 14 points clear at the top of the table – the biggest gap between the leaders and the chasing pack at this stage of the season in top-flight history.
“I am not thinking to be unbeaten,” said Guardiola afterwards. “That is not going to happen.”
Despite the result, it could still prove a costly afternoon for City with Gabriel Jesus leaving the field injured and in tears in the first half, and the league’s top assist-maker Kevin de Bruyne stretchered off after a heavy tackle from Jason Puncheon in the final minute.
It leaves City with only one fit senior striker in Sergio Aguero, who replaced Jesus at Selhurst Park.
While Chelsea and Manchester United trail City by some distance, they may see a small light at the end of the tunnel in a title race that appeared to be all but over before the turn of the year.
The last team to go unbeaten throughout a Premier League season were Arsenal in 2003-04 but Guardiola still feels it is unlikely City will match them.
“Maybe Arsene [Wenger] is worried about that but I tell him many times that 2004 run is for him,” he said. “Today is completely different to 2004.
“Here are now more strong teams, a lot of competitions, a lot of games. That is not going to happen. I try to win the game, and especially focus on Watford.”
Palace were rewarded after their defensive grit and off-the-ball energy shone through in an enthralling contest.
The question, after they pressed so ferociously in the first half, was whether they were fit enough in the midst of the congested Christmas fixture-list to keep it up.
But the hosts did just that, with midfielder Luka Milivojevic covering more ground than anyone on the pitch (12.69 km), even if his late spot-kick was struck too close to City goalkeeper Ederson after Raheem Sterling fouled Wilfried Zaha in the box in the 92nd minute.
The point means the Eagles start the new year outside of the bottom three, a point above West Ham in 18th – symbolic for a club that suffered seven straight defeats without scoring during their miserable start to the season.
They also secured only their second home clean sheet in the league all season against a team which have scored 102 goals in 2017.
The downside to playing their energetic part in such an eventful contest was the first-half injury to centre-back Scott Dann, with Hodgson already light on defenders in Mamadou Sakho’s injury absence because of a calf problem.
But they can take heart from creating other opportunities to win aside from the penalty; with full-back Patrick van Aanholt testing Ederson in the first half and Andros Townsend wasting a gilt-edged chance to convert on 78 minutes.
With Yohan Cabaye, who drew applause for closing down City defender Nicolas Otamendi in the first half, playing further forward than he did in their previous defeat by Arsenal, Palace had a courage with the ball to match their resilience off it.
“I’m very proud of the team’s performance,” said Hodgson. “I know how difficult it is to play a team of Manchester City’s quality.
“Before the game we would have been jumping through hoops at having claimed a point, then you get a penalty late in the game, so there is an element of sadness at a chance missed.
“But I’ve said to the players: ‘continue that level of performance week after week and we’ve got a good chance of staying in the league’.”
Not winning their 19th consecutive game is hardly evidence of the wheels coming off City’s remarkable title bid, but there were signs that could be problematic in south London.
Their ninth game in December saw more onus on the considerable creativity of Kevin de Bruyne in playmaker David Silva’s continued absence.
But the previously sensational Belgian’s set-pieces were off colour – only one of six deliveries was dangerous, and his passing accuracy (80%) was less than any other starting City player.
Now Guardiola may have to cope without him after that late withdrawal, although he appeared able to walk alongside club physios after being carried off.
Leroy Sane could step up to fill the gap in the coming weeks but he struggled too. The 21-year-old won only half of his 14 individual duels, and was often second best to Palace defender Timothy Fosu-Mensah.
He was meekly dispossessed by the on-loan Manchester United man in the first half, and berated by De Bruyne over the timing of another run. Then he was booked for kicking the ball away in frustration.
It remains to be seen if Guardiola moves to bolster his attack by prising Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal in January, however the City boss said in his post-match news conference that he expects the forward to stay with the Gunners.
“He is a player for Arsenal and I think he is going to stay there,” he said. “In two days we have another game after that we have meetings. My feeling now is Alexis is an Arsenal player.”