Wednesday 21 February 2018

Aguero the key as Pellegrini plots battles on all four fronts

Manchester City 4 Crystal Palace 0

Manchester City's Yaya Toure in action against Crystal Palace's Scott Dann at the Etihad Stadium. Photo: Reuters / Phil Noble.
Manchester City's Yaya Toure in action against Crystal Palace's Scott Dann at the Etihad Stadium. Photo: Reuters / Phil Noble.
Sergio Aguero scores the second goal for Manchester City as Crystal Palace's Wayne Hennessey attempts a save. Photo: Reuters / Phil Noble.
Crystal Palace's Joel Ward, left, and Manchester City's David Silva battle for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match at the Etihad Stadium Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
Crystal Palace's Yohan Cabaye challenges Manchester City's Sergio Aguero for the ball. Photo: Reuters / Jason Cairnduff.

Jonathan Liew

But that third goal, he insists, leaning in towards her, smacking a fist on to his palm for emphasis.

Aguero. Silva. Aguero. Toure. De Bruyne. Aguero. Beautiful. The ­movement, the understanding. A ­champions' goal.

She shrugs. Palace were chasing the game, she says, gazing out into the snowy night through the steamed-up windows of the Altrincham tram.

Any team can look clinical in a three-on-three break. And if McArthur had put them 1-0 up with that header - as he should have done - it would have all been different.

He changes tack. No Kompany, he points out. No Fernandinho. Silva, Zabaleta, Aguero out for most of the season. And we are still in all four competitions.

Three clean sheets in a row. Demichelis is still a liability, though, she says. Better than Mangala, he says. De Bruyne looks knackered, she says.

Still put a shift in, he says. And they did not really create much, she says. But we won 4-0, he says, his eyes wide with incredulity, his voice raised as a station announcement crackles over the speakers.

So what are we to make of this City side, then - a marital argument disguised as a title-chasing football team?

In many ways, this was their season in microcosm - a triumph that looked serene enough on the surface, yet masked a swirl of smaller anxieties.

"City didn't play great," a cold-ravaged Alan Pardew said. "But they're clinical."

If we learnt anything on Saturday, it is that below-par City still wipe the floor with below-par anyone else. Palace, industrious but toothless, certainly found that out.

Not many teams have a striker who can turn in a strangely ineffectual performance and still pop up with two goals - as Sergio Aguero did.

Not many teams have a fourth-choice defensive midfielder who can break a jittery deadlock with a 30-yard screamer - as Fabian Delph did. And not many teams can strengthen their grip on a game by bringing Yaya Toure off the bench - as Manuel Pellegrini did.


City's unrivalled strength in depth has helped them to negotiate a season that has been more turbulent than many realise.

This is, after all, a side undergoing a subtle but significant transition. Of last season's 11 most-used league players, eight were 29 or over. This season, six are 28 or under. The average age of the side has dropped by two years.

Throw in injuries to key players and the rumbling speculation over Pep Guardiola, and Pellegrini has done a deceptively assured job so far.

They may not have set the league alight, but while most of their rivals have fallen away, City are hanging in there.

Pablo Zabaleta said: "We have a big period coming up. Four months, and we are in four competitions. We need to perform well week in, week out, and we have the big players to do that."

What happens when those big players break down, of course, is unanswerable.

Could City's title charge survive another Aguero breakdown? Probably not. Wilfried Bony is injured and, while 19-year-old Kelechi Iheanacho looked sharp and shrewd on a rare start, he is the future, not the present.

"It's impossible to replace Kun," Pellegrini admitted. "But if he cannot play, we must have a Kelechi or Bony in a high-performance level, because it's the only way to win titles."

This was not vintage City and the scoreline was harsh on a Palace side which has now failed to score in a five-match winless run in the league.

But with Aguero back on goal-scoring form with his first goals at home since November, and key players like Toure, Raheem Sterling, Fernandinho and Vincent Kompany not in City's starting line-up, either through selection policy or injury, Pellegrini believes this could be a telling result.

"We have to play so many games in January, it is very important to have the whole squad involved in what we are doing if you want to continue being a competitive team in all the competitions. To make five changes and to win the way we did today I think will be very useful for the future," he said.

City's blank against Everton - their first in the league at home in almost 12 months - was dismissed as almost a freak by Pellegrini, who admitted that scoring the first goal against Palace had made all the difference as the visitors' need to chase an equaliser left space to be exploited.

It could have been the other way round had Damien Delaney converted an early heading chance he directed too close to goalkeeper Joe Hart.

Palace, having lost on their previous six visits to City, didn't help their cause when Wayne Hennessey failed to keep out a skidding 35-yarder from Delph to put a question mark over his immediate future following a similarly costly mistake against Aston Villa on Tuesday night.

"The ball is in his court to keep out the other two goalkeepers but I need to see it in training, I need to see a reaction from him. I will give him that chance because he deserves it," said Pardew.

Hennessey was powerless to stop Aguero's deflected effort four minutes before half-time and City did show their class with their two-second half goals, Aguero tapping in his 13th of the season at the end of that lovely move and then leading a break-away to tee up David Silva for his first Premier League goal since the opening weekend of the season.

Look, he says, meeting her glance as the tram slows to a halt. It is all beginning to click. Silva's getting back to his best. Otamendi looked good. It is not vintage City, but they will raise their game.

Yeah, she says. But what if they do not? They get off at Holt Town, still arguing the toss. © Daily Telegraph, London.

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