MANCHESTER, England (AP)Pep Guardiola has been trying to get a reaction from his out-of-sorts Manchester City players. Perhaps the Premier League has done the job for him.
At the end of a week when the defending champions were accused of breaching a slew of financial regulations, Guardiola’s players issued a defiant response on the field by beating Aston Villa 3-1.
Another win at Arsenal on Wednesday and City will move to the top of the Premier League for the first time since August and wipe out the eight-point gap that separated the teams as recently as Jan. 19.
It is a turnaround that hardly looked likely when City lost 1-0 to Tottenham last week in a match that saw Guardiola bench star player Kevin de Bruyne in his attempts to get his team’s title defense on track.
But Arsenal has also been stuttering – dropping five points over the last two weeks, including the 1-1 draw with Brentford on Saturday – to give hope to rivals City and Manchester United.
If Arsenal fans hoped City’s latest legal fight to clear its name would be a distraction, the evidence on Sunday was more that it could have a galvanizing effect.
The home crowd at the Etihad Stadium jeered the Premier League anthem before kickoff and sang songs about its owners, Abu Dhabi’s ruling family.
And it only took four minutes for the team to give fans something to cheer when Rodri opened the scoring.
Ilkay Gundogan scored a second in the 39th and Riyad Mahrez hit a third from the penalty spot in the first minute of stoppage time at the end of the half.
Ollie Watkins pulled one back for Villa in the 61st, but the job was effectively done by the break. Guardiola could even afford to take off leading scorer Erling Haaland and Ruben Dias at halftime as his thoughts likely turned to that midweek trip to Emirates Stadium and a top-of-the-table clash with Arsenal.
Arsenal will have its work cut out to keep City at bay if Guardiola’s team produces a performance as ruthless as its first-half display.
City’s players looked like they had a point to prove after Guardiola said on Friday that the club had already been condemned as a result of the latest accusations of financial wrongdoing.
After successfully overturning a two-year ban issued by UEFA, the club says it will clear its name again. But Guardiola believes damage to City’s reputation has already been done.
Guardiola said Friday that he was even more determined to stay in his role after the accusations and build on the success of seven years at the club, which have seen him deliver four Premier League titles and five more major trophies.
Yet City’s title defense has come into question this season in the face of Arsenal’s outstanding form.
Guardiola suggested his team had lost its edge after dominating in recent years and the 1-0 loss to Tottenham was in keeping with an inconsistent campaign.
On Sunday Guardiola got the response he’s been looking for as City aims to prove itself both on and off the field.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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