Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola says his side showed relegation form in the first half of their win over Aston Villa, as they cut Liverpool’s lead at the top of the table to three points.
City, who are in second place in the Premier League, scored three second-half goals to see off a determined Villa side.
But Guardiola was unimpressed with the way the defending champions started the game – apart from Raheem Sterling, whom he felt led by example with his attacking play.
Speaking about his side’s title challenge, Guardiola said: “I am not concerned about the table, I am concerned all the time with how we play.
“If we play at the level we did in the second half, we can be there until the end of the season, I am sure of that.
“But if we play like we did in the first half, we will be relegated or in the relegation positions, far away from leading the table. We did not play the way we should play, and the only player who was aggressive when we had the ball was Raheem.
“In the second half we imitated him. He showed us the way we wanted to play, and it was much better.”
Liverpool can restore their six-point advantage if they beat Tottenham on Sunday – although after dropping points last weekend, the Reds go into that game knowing they now have the defending champions breathing down their neck.
As Guardiola acknowledged, it did not always look like turning out that way for City, who had to work hard to break down a well-organised Villa side.
The visitors had largely frustrated City in the first half but their resistance lasted for only 20 seconds after the restart.
After Villa squandered possession from their own kick-off, Ederson’s long punt forward was flicked on by Gabriel Jesus and into the path of Sterling, who made no mistake.
Jesus should have made it 2-0 soon afterwards when a mistake by Bjorn Engels left him clean through, but a combination of a Tom Heaton save and a brilliant goal-line clearance by Tyrone Mings denied him.
City had to wait until the 65th minute for their second goal, which confusingly was eventually awarded to David Silva, after a long delay for a VAR decision that had concluded it was Kevin de Bruyne’s goal.
It was unclear at first glance whether Silva or Sterling, who would have been offside from a Silva touch, had got a deflection on De Bruyne’s wicked curling cross but after a four-minute delay that was met with derision by both sets of fans, it was ruled it had gone straight in and was allowed to stand.
However, some time after the final whistle, the goal accreditation panel – an independent entity which has no affiliation with VAR – awarded the goal to Silva, who had wheeled away in celebration.
Nonetheless, Ilkay Gundogan made absolutely sure of the points a few moments later, when Fernandinho’s shot was cleared into his path, and he expertly adjusted his body to put away a fine first-time finish.
The hosts finished the game with 10 men after Fernandinho was shown a second yellow card.