Jack Grealish’s quietly-changing role key for Pep Guardiola as Man City pass title test

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Erling Haaland scored from the penalty spot as the Premier League’s defending champions edged out Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on an evening where Jack Grealish’s mature approach was clear to see despite being closely tracked for 90 minutes

At the end of a week in which he became the Premier League ’s most marketable player, Jack Grealish found that he was the most tightly marked man at Selhurst Park as Manchester City ’s ambition of retaining the Premier League underwent another unexpectedly severe examination.

Erling Haaland’s 34th goal of the season, from the penalty spot with 12 minutes to play, was the difference in a tetchy, hard-fought game where City were not at their best but gritted their teeth and found a way to win. And it was also hard not to leave with the feeling that Grealish, without being on sparkling form, is maturing before our eyes.

On Tuesday it was announced that the winger had signed a new contract with Puma worth £10m a year until the summer of 2028 – a boot deal beaten only by Neymar, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe. “He turns heads on and off the pitch with his quick feet and personal style,” cooed Puma exec Johan Adamsson when confirming the deal before describing Grealish as one of their brands “leading faces.”

The same phrase now applies for City. The 27-year-old, turning up in a silver and orange pair of footwear here, has stepped up consistently since returning from the World Cup to silence all those doubts over whether Pep Guardiola’s desired approach had robbed the £100m man of the freedom that made him a star in the first place.

Grealish, who was named the club’s player of the month for February, is still not the maverick operator who so often single-handedly dragged Aston Villa to wins. But he is a more lean, mean machine now. There is less trickery, less unpredictability, yet the efficiency continues to increase.

Yet with each impactful performance, ever more skin-tight attention follows in the next game. And on a sopping wet evening in South London, against a Palace side that remains badly limited going forward but a sticky proposition to break down, Grealish found himself subdued to an extent seldom seen in recent months.

Nathaniel Clyne, who departed with an empty tank in the 71st minute to a loud and appreciative ovation, did a superb job tracking Grealish’s every move and the Palace right back was diligently assisted by Michael Olise, the eventual fall guy, dropping back to intercept on more than one occasion.

Palace had come into the game on a run of 201 minutes without a single shot on target. The fact Guardiola named four centre halves, with John Stones dividing his time between right back without possession and central midfield when on the ball, made the hosts chances of even threatening Ederson all the more limited.

That made for an entirely predictable game of defence versus attack, where the reigning champions dominated possession and territory and Palace sought to absorb as much pressure as possible.

And while Olise’s foul on Ilkay Gundogan for the penalty was naive, and out of keep with the rest of his defensive efforts, Grealish quietly played an important role in it being won as he found his German team-mate with a short corner during a split second where Palace were not fully alert to the danger.

Haaland ’s penalty inevitably led to more gaps appearing as Palace tried, and failed, to muster up something resembling a threat in the final third. And within a minute of the game restarting he almost set the Norwegian goalscorer in for his second with a delightful pass that dissected the hosts’ weary defence. On this occasion Haaland was unable to finish.

Grealish, suddenly finding life much easier up against Joel Ward, later sent in a fine cross for Haaland only for the header to drift wide. Not that it mattered much for City as they closed the gap on Arsenal, who face a tricky London away of their own tomorrow with the pressure firmly ramped up again.

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