Sunday 22 April 2018

Dion Fanning: Man City show their flaws to give title challengers reason to be hopeful

West Ham United 2-2 Manchester City

Dimitri Payet put in a man of the match performance for West Ham United. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Dimitri Payet put in a man of the match performance for West Ham United. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
West Ham United's Ecuadorian striker Enner Valencia celebrates his second goal of the game. Photo: Getty
Sergio Aguero beats Adrian to score City's equaliser. Photo: Getty
Manchester City's manager Manuel Pellegrini looks on. Photo: Getty

Dion Fanning

There were moments at the Boleyn Ground last night when Manchester City were playing like champions in a league which is extremely short of potential champions. In those moments, it was possible to believe that sooner or later, City will take a lead at the top of the table which will leave those who can't match their class behind.

But then there were other moments when the outstanding Dimitri Payet was on the ball, our old friend the expectant hush had settled on Upton Park and City didn't look like champions. Or, more precisely, they looked as flawed as Arsenal, Tottenham, or maybe even Leicester City who are the other championship contenders. In the end, those flaws are keeping the title race interesting. "This is an impossible league to predict," Slaven Bilic said later. City went behind twice yesterday and came back to take a point without ever playing with conviction.

They have won only four league games away from home this season and their flaws contributed to a gripping game which also demonstrated West Ham's strengths once again.

City's ambitions are greater so there may be more focus on their weaknesses.

Yaya Toure was a liability from the opening seconds when Cheikhou Kouyate charged by him in the build-up to the opening goal. Jesus Navas only offered hope in an offensive sense to West Ham who were able to attack at will down the left, safe in the knowledge that Navas would never hurt them.

City would claim with some justification that Upton Park is a hard place to visit, and Payet is a player who can make it difficult for anyone. But their defensive weaknesses are varied and ongoing.

If Arsenal win against Chelsea today they will be level with Leicester and three points clear of City. "We cannot talk about deciding the title when there are 15 games left," Manuel Pellegrini said later and he has a point. The talent in City's squad should make them favourites. The failure to maximise it will allow all the others to believe they can be champions.

In the end City needed Sergio Aguero to ensure they took a point. Aguero dragged them back into the game when the flaws in the side had made things difficult after 55 seconds.

When Kouyate picked up the ball on the left and moved purposefully towards the City goal, Toure waved him through. Kouyate's cross came off Fabian Delph and Enner Valencia was waiting to drive the ball into the goal.

Aguero was sharp and brave and alert to everything. Almost immediately, he took a ball down inside the box and lobbed it from the left over Adrian in the West Ham goal. It was a delicate piece of skill which merited a goal but instead the ball bounced off the post and Winston Reid was there to chest it back to the goalkeeper.

He was then fouled in the box by Carl Jenkinson, who was injured making the tackle, and put away the penalty.

Jenkinson came off, with Sam Byram on for his debut. He received words of encouragement from Mark Noble and James Collins, while Aguero also gave him a welcoming pat, although he might have preferred not to have been reminded of his presence.

City then performed for a while as if the opening seconds belonged to some other match.

But this is a good West Ham side with bewitching players of their own, most notably Payet who would soon eclipse Aguero and David Silva.

Payet was taking up dangerous positions, and when he found himself in midfield, he quickly spotted Michail Antonio who was determined to get towards goal. He knocked the ball past Martin Demichelis and was brought down. Demichelis gambled that the referee would decide that he hadn't a goal-scoring opportunity and he won his bet. Payet took the free-kick and curled a vicious shot around the outside of the wall which Hart did brilliantly to tip wide.

Fabian Delph hit the base of the post with a shot from outside the box at the beginning of the second half but West Ham kept going forward, even if their second goal was all about the weaknesses in the City side.

When West Ham won a throw on the right, Antonio took it and the City defence was immobilised. The ball bounced over Nicolas Otamendi and Valencia had an easy finish,

City needed to assert their title credentials or at least assert something. Instead they played without any bite and if West Ham had more conviction, they could have ensured the three points.

Delph came off with 15 minutes left and was replaced by Kelechi Iheanacho who made a difference.

Suddenly City had somebody prepared to run at West Ham and expose the weaknesses at the back. Five minutes after coming on he did that. His run lacked panache but it had purpose. He played the ball into Aguero but it then ran loose. Aaron Cresswell came across to cover but he played it directly to the last man he would have wanted to receive it. Aguero had an easy finish.

Again, West Ham were the team who responded and they tried hard to win it.

In injury time, Aguero had a chance but shot straight at Adrian. Then Kouyate hit the bar with a header with the last play of the game. City might be grateful for a point against tough opponents, but their flaws were with them until the end.

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