Sunday 25 February 2018

City resume normal service to stay in touch with pace-setters

Manchester City 3 Sunderland 0

Manchester City's Sergio Aguero celebrates after scoring the second goal
Manchester City's Sergio Aguero celebrates after scoring the second goal

Paul Wilson at the Etihad Stadium

Manchester City moved above their neighbours in the Premier League table by recording their fourth win of the season and, at long last, their first clean sheet, though it is probably true to say most defences would end up feeling better about themselves after playing the timid travellers of Sunderland.

It was certainly a different exercise to trying to keep Borussia Dortmund at bay, almost a different ball game. There may be no easy games in the English league, or so everyone keeps saying, but clearly some games are less demanding than others.

Roberto Mancini made wholesale changes after what he described as a poor performance in midweek against Dortmund, bringing back Joleon Lescott and Micah Richards in the centre of defence and recalling Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli in place of Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko up front. Though City's Champions League reviews were mostly dominated by Joe Hart's goalkeeping heroics, it did not escape the manager's notice that several excellent opportunities were squandered by home strikers at the other end.

"We had three or four incredible opportunities and I don't know why we didn't score," Mancini said.

Sunderland are not quite up to Dortmund standards, this was ponderous, running-through-treacle stuff after the high-speed pressing and precision on show on Wednesday, but it only took a few minutes for City's returning front two to make their mark. Balotelli played Tevez into an enormous amount of space, Carlos Cuellar was rightly booked for bringing him down as he attempted to access the penalty area, and from the free-kick Aleksandar Kolarov beat Simon Mignolet handsomely with a shot over the wall that the goalkeeper could not reach.

City should have had a second when Pablo Zabaleta found himself with a shooting opportunity on the halfway line but could only hit Mignolet, then Balotelli, after twice being floored by over-zealous challenges from Craig Gardner, shot over the bar from close range following James Milner's cross from the right.

After reaching the interval without further damage Sunderland stirred themselves briefly at the start of the second half, with Adam Johnson finally managing to mark his return to the Etihad with a decent run down the right and a good cross, and Steven Fletcher lining up a close range volley that required Richards to make an athletic block. City still came closest to scoring the next goal, however, when Yaya Toure forced a save from Mignolet following David Silva's clever back heel, before Balotelli read Kolarov's low cross from the left correctly but narrowly failed to make the important contact. That was the end of the Italian's involvement, Aguero replacing him for the final half hour, and exactly on the hour the substitute struck with the sort of deadly composure that had been missing in midweek.

Silva fed Kolarov down the left, the full-back supplied one of his stock low crosses, and Aguero's first time finish from the six yard line had the ball past Mignolet before the Sunderland defence had properly woken up to the danger.

If Balotelli was upset at being hooked, and he did not appear best pleased, at least he could not argue with the upshot. Tevez missed a great chance and Silva struck the bar as the game descended into a turkey shoot at the Sunderland end. James Milner finally added a third a minute from time with another direct free-kick from just outside the area, though by that stage everyone was beginning to wonder what would happen should City somehow manage to concede in the closing seconds.

Mancini would have been furious, but Sunderland never put the matter to the test.


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