MANCHESTER, England -- In any title-winning campaign there are results that take on extra significance and this may turn out to be one of them.
In sloppy conditions, against an Aston Villa team who had not played for three weeks and on a night when nothing seemed to go their way, Manchester City, who lost Kyle Walker and Kevin De Bruyne to injury, were still able to win 2-0 and move top of the Premier League table for at least a couple of hours.
After 79 minutes of missed chances and goalmouth scrambles, it took something special to extend City's winning run to nine, Bernardo Silva crashing a shot into the net from 20 yards. It sparked wild celebrations on the pitch and among the substitutes in the stands. Even midway through January, it felt like an important goal in difficult circumstances. Ilkay Gundogan then added a late penalty after Matty Cash was adjudged to have handled Gabriel Jesus' header to make sure there was no dramatic finish.
It meant that for the first time in 523 days, Guardiola's team are top of the pile and looking every bit title favourites.
Aston Villa, meanwhile, were left to rue what might have been after contributing to quite an entertaining game. A COVID-19 outbreak meant this was their first league game since losing at Manchester United on Jan. 1 and there were moments when they looked far fresher even if ultimately, they tired towards the end.
Villa were also upset with Silva's goal, arguing that Rodri had come back from an offside position to rob Tyrone Mings of the ball before the Portuguese midfielder's strike. Dean Smith was so angered that he collected two yellow cards in the space of 30 seconds while he remonstrated with referee Jon Moss and was forced to watch the final 11 minutes from the stands.
The goal was checked by VAR but Andrew Madley in Stockley Park was happy there was nothing wrong. The Premier League also clarified afterwards that the moment Mings touches the ball a new phase of play begins and thus that Rodri is no longer considered offside. Smith, though, wasn't having any of it.
"It was a farcical decision," said Smith. "I've not seen a goal like that given. It needs to be looked at. I don't think anyone in this stadium thought it was a goal.
"I thought they would go over to the VAR screen. I saw the incident and saw it was kicking off, so I asked the fourth officials did they get juggling balls for Christmas.
"For the second goal, a header from a yard out that has hit his [Matty Cash's] arm. That's not handball. Ridiculous. It looked like Jon Moss couldn't wait to give me a yellow and then a red but I'm upset with myself because I got sucked into something I shouldn't."
The concern for Guardiola afterwards was the injuries to Walker and De Bruyne, who both hobbled off after incidents involving Jack Grealish. Walker tried to carry on after a heavy fall but was replaced by Oleksandr Zinchenko in the first half and after the break, De Bruyne left the pitch in visible discomfort and went straight down the tunnel.
"I didn't speak to the doctor, I went into the interviews but Kyle asked to come off because something happened," said Guardiola.
"Kevin put his hand on his leg. I've a feeling it's muscular. Sometimes these things happen, it's normal in these games."
Neither should be needed at the weekend when City face League Two side Cheltenham in the fourth road of the FA Cup but they are two key players for Guardiola. He will want them back as soon as possible, too, particularly with a tough run of Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal looming in February. Before the trip to Anfield on Feb. 7, City will look to cash in on a kind run of fixtures against three of the bottom four with trips to West Brom and Burnley sandwiching a home date with Sheffield United.
If there was a negative on the day was is that City are still struggling for goals and again started without a recognised striker. But Guardiola is finding a different way to win built around a defence that has now kept five clean sheets in a row. In 11 games with Ruben Dias and John Stones together at centre-back, City have conceded only once.
"It was a very good performance again, against a top side," said Guardiola.
"The most difficult thing is to score a goal, in the second half we were more aggressive.
"No one else has won five, six in a row but it's still the first leg of the season. A lot of games to do but the important thing is that the feeling is good. They are very dangerous and just look at their results this season. A big victory."
Guardiola has won enough trophies in his career to know an important result when he sees one.