Thursday 21 September 2017

Hughton on a knife-edge

Manchester City 7 Norwich 0

Ian Whittell

Manchester City's largest top-flight victory in 45 years may have silenced the early season grumblings about new manager Manuel Pellegrini, if not goalkeeper Joe Hart, but for two other managers, proceedings at the Etihad were far less enjoyable.

Chris Hughton's position as Norwich boss will come under intense scrutiny in the wake of a pathetic performance by his team, with the club's supporters already having voiced their disquiet during last weekend's goalless home draw with Cardiff.

Meanwhile, England's Roy Hodgson, having seen his undisputed first-choice goalkeeper Hart dropped by Pellegrini after a string of high-profile errors, saw one potential replacement John Ruddy endure the sort of afternoon in the Norwich goal that can seriously stall, if not end, careers.

City had seven different goalscorers and saw Hart's replacement Costel Pantilimon record a clean sheet as the hosts produced the perfect response to the criticisms levelled by Pellegrini in the wake of their late defeat at Chelsea last Sunday.

Far better opponents than Norwich would have struggled to cope with City's attacking game; the interlinking play of David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo and their off-the-ball running left Hughton's immobile and unmotivated defence chasing shadows.

"It's so important to see the team play the way I want them to," said Pellegrini. "They are very good technical players and when they move the ball quickly and produce space, it's difficult for our team not to score."

It was certainly difficult for City not to score here, given the compliance of Ruddy and his defenders, and only 15 minutes had elapsed when City maintained their record of having, now, scored in 55 consecutive home league games. Silva's shot was blocked by Russell Martin before Aguero latched onto a rebound which struck Michael Turner and ricocheted off Bradley Johnson before looping over the stranded Ruddy.

If Ruddy, who signed a four-year contract extension on Friday, was deceived by an unkind bounce for that goal, he was wholly at fault after 20 minutes when Silva capitalised on excellent work by Aguero and hit a 15-yard shot which passed through Ruddy.

Four minutes later, Ruddy was stranded once more as Matija Nastasic headed a Samir Nasri corner against the head of Martin and into the top corner.

The visiting keeper soon contrived to drop a corner, and was left to watch in relief as a defender charged down Aguero's shot, before he conceded the fourth as Toure played a deft chip forward which Aguero took to the by-line before crossing for Negredo to convert into an open net.

After the restart, and substitute Johan Elmander missing Norwich's best opening of the game at the near post, Ruddy was again found wanting by a Nasri effort which he turned into the path of Aguero, who shot into the side netting.

Still, the Norwich goalkeeper could not be faulted on the hour when Toure curled a magnificent 20-yard free-kick into the top left-hand corner after Johnson had brought down Edin Dzeko.

It was hard to imagine Aguero would not add his name to the scoresheet and, accordingly, he did after 71 minutes, volleying an unstoppable shot into the net.

While the Argentinian was soon denied a second by Ruddy, City would not be denied a seventh and after 85 minutes Dzeko collected a Pablo Zabaleta pass, swivelled, and fired into the bottom corner from 15 yards.

"At this moment, it's very tough to sit here and be on the back of that defeat," said Hughton. "Apart from perhaps two goals – Toure scoring a wonderful free-kick and one of their goals was offside – all the other goals were too easy.

"It started early, we conceded early goals which had us on the back foot and perhaps made us a little bit too nervous and what today perhaps showed was the absolute quality they have."

That quality appears to extend to the goalkeeping positions, where Hart's Romanian deputy dealt well with the couple of half-chances that the visitors carved out and looks likely to retain his place.

"My duty is to see every week which are the best players to play every game," explained Pellegrini of his decision to drop Hart. "We have a lot of games. For this game, I thought Joe needed a rest. I think it will be useful for him. He played every match the last two and a half years here and every player can have a bad moment. We will work hard behind Joe so he can return to his normal performance as soon as possible."

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