Defender's rebirth powering Pep's men up the table
MANCHESTER, England－John Stones admitted he had to go back to basics to regain Pep Guardiola's faith after scoring twice as Manchester City thrashed Crystal Palace 4-0 on Sunday.
City's charge up the table has taken it into second in the Premier League, just two points behind leader Manchester United with a game in hand to come.
Stones' partnership with Ruben Dias has been pivotal to 12 clean sheets in a 15-game unbeaten run and the England defender also delivered his first two Premier League goals for the club after five seasons in Manchester.
"Keeping these clean sheets is massive. It's a platform for the lads to go and express themselves up front," said Stones.
"We are taking great pride in keeping clean sheets and hopefully we can keep the run going."
The signings of Dias and Nathan Ake during the summer transfer window could have signaled the end of Stones' time at Etihad Stadium after he struggled for game time－even when Guardiola was short on centerback options last season following the departure of Vincent Kompany and a long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte.
"It's always tough when you are not playing and you don't perform as you can because you put too much pressure on yourself," added Stones.
"I went back to the basics, looked at myself first and looked at what I can improve on in every aspect."
Guardiola hailed the impact Dias has had on his centerback partner and is relieved that the defensive deficiencies that ruined his side's title defense last season appear to have been ironed out.
"We don't make mistakes. In the past, especially last season we made a lot of mistakes. This season if the opponent scores a goal, OK, but we make them do it.
"They give us this confidence that we can score a goal and we don't concede. Today we didn't concede one shot on target and that is fundamental to our game
"Ruben helped us a lot and John, alongside Ruben, grew up."
City took full advantage of dropped points for both its biggest title challengers after United and Liverpool played out a 0-0 draw earlier on Sunday.
Despite not hitting the heights of back-to-back league titles under Guardiola between 2017 and 2019, City has now won its last eight games in all competitions.
Kevin De Bruyne registered his 100th City assist with the outside of his right foot for Stones to nod home from close range to open the scoring on 26 minutes.
Palace had taken four points from its last two trips to the Etihad, but without the injured Wilfried Zaha offered barely any attacking threat as the Eagles remain 13th in the table.
With Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling short on goals and Sergio Aguero absent after coming into close contact with a positive coronavirus case, Ilkay Gundogan's scoring form of late has been a major factor in City's revival.
The German midfielder curled home his fourth goal in seven games into the top corner 11 minutes into the second half to end any doubt over the outcome.
Stones then swept home his second of the night on the rebound after Vicente Guaita saved from Dias's initial powerful header.
Guardiola could then afford the luxury of handing De Bruyne and Gundogan a rare rest for the final 20 minutes ahead of Aston Villa's visit in midweek.
Sterling blazed a penalty over the bar late on in Wednesday's 1-0 win over Brighton when handed the responsibility by De Bruyne.
With the Belgian playmaker off the field, Sterling got another chance from a freekick outside the box and this time curled sublimely into the top corner two minutes from time to round off a perfect day for City.
With City completing its January league schedule with matches against mid-table Aston Villa and relegation-battling West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United, Guardiola's men will feel they have a great chance to end the month atop the standings.
United's 'missed chance'
Manchester United held onto top spot after Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker forced it to settle for a 0-0 draw on Sunday.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side had the better chances in a strangely subdued clash between two of English soccer's bitterest rivals.
Alisson saved well from Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba in the second half.
United is top after the New Year for the first time since the legendary Alex Ferguson's retirement in 2013 thanks to nine wins in a 12-match unbeaten run.
Leaving Anfield unscathed is a solid result as it chases a first title in eight years, but United felt an injury-hit Liverpool was there for the taking.
"It was an opportunity missed with the chances we had but then again we were playing a very good side," Solskjaer said.
"I think we grew in the game and toward the end it was there for us to win. We created two massive chances and it was two brilliant saves by the keeper."
It is the first time these two old foes have been involved in a title race together since 2009, but both teams largely played with the handbrake on at an empty Anfield.
Liverpool is well short of the dynamic form that carried it to the title last season and the Champions League in 2019.
Jurgen Klopp's team has now gone four league games without a win and is without a goal in its last three top-flight matches.
"There is no easy explanation. We always missed chances, even in the games we won, we just had another one which we used," Klopp said.
"We had to be good to get a point. I think we were good enough to get three points but we didn't score."