Foden, Rodri prove Man City’s depth is crucial in title race

Pep Guardiola decided he could do without Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne against Aston Villa, but the Manchester City manager couldn’t bring himself to rest Phil Foden or Rodri.

With Haaland and De Bruyne on the bench at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday, Guardiola’s two stars of the season stepped up to help City win 4-1 and stay in touch with the Premier League leaders.

Foden scored a sublime hat trick — his second of the season — after Rodri had got the first. There was a brief spell when Jhon Durán‘s equaliser threatened to push Guardiola’s team further behind in the title race, but the goal only seemed to ignite City’s spark, and a Villa side without Ollie Watkins, Emiliano Martínez, Pau Torres, Leon Bailey, John McGinn, and Youri Tielemans were ripped apart. In the end, City’s first win over a team currently in the top five was achieved with something to spare.

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“We bring incredible energy, four or five players up front,” said Guardiola afterwards. “The measure of the team is how many chances we create and how much control we have. It is the measure. We were really good.”

Guardiola branded City’s 1-0 defeat at Villa Park in December their worst performance of the season and one of the reasons for it was Rodri’s absence through suspension. The Spanish midfielder has missed three Premier League games this season — against Wolves, Arsenal, and Villa — and City have lost them all, the clearest indication of just how important he is to this team.

Haaland and De Bruyne are world-class, but ask any City fan for the name of the player they most need on the teamsheet in the biggest games and the majority will say Rodri. With no one else in the squad who can do the same job, he must stay fit and available if City are going to make a serious charge towards another treble.

He scored the first goal here — his eighth of the season — after roaming into the penalty area to get on the end of Jérémy Doku‘s cross before getting an assist for Foden in the second half after dancing through Villa’s midfield. It was only when the score reached 4-1 midway through the second half that Guardiola felt confident enough to take him off.

“Rodri is the best,” said Guardiola. “In his position, he is the best so he can do everything. The quality, he reads the game, his mentality, he is always ready and Rodri is a top, top [player]. He is so good at many things. This kind of thing at this level. The presence, the physicality, he is complete and he is a young player. Manchester City did something incredible to sign him.”

Foden’s form this season has gone more under the radar, but it’s been no less impressive. This time last year he was out of the team and didn’t start any of the biggest games of the treble run-in against Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester United, or Inter.

But fast forward 12 months and he’s a player Guardiola cannot risk leaving out. The 23-year-old has started every league game since Nov. 4 and, barring injury, will be in the team for the Champions League quarterfinal first leg against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu next week. He warmed up for his meeting with England teammate Jude Bellingham with a hat trick against Villa: the first a low free kick that found the bottom corner, the second a first-time finish swept across Villa goalkeeper Robin Olsen, and the third a curling strike from outside the box.

They were his 19th, 20th, and 21st goals of the season — already his best tally in a single campaign and there are still two months to go. The only players with more Premier League hat tricks before the age of 24 are Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Harry Kane, and Haaland.

“He can do whatever he wants,” said Guardiola. “I think he is a really top-class player. We know it. He is still open-minded, he has to be focused, sometimes he is a bit distracted. But he has a natural talent, a gift, and after that, he has an incredible sense of goal. You have the feeling he is going to score. It is not easy to find it.”

Villa, now without a league win at the Etihad for 17 years, were understrength, but they were still dismantled by a City team without Haaland, De Bruyne, Ederson, John Stones, or Kyle Walker. Guardiola is likely to need them all if he hopes to win everything and repeat the treble, but it was a night when Foden and Rodri were enough to keep up the pressure on Liverpool and Arsenal at the top of the table.

“It will not be easy,” said Guardiola. “I see Liverpool and Arsenal playing and it will not be easy but you never know.”