Thursday 18 January 2018

Iheanacho hits late winner to maintain perfect City run

Crystal Palace 0-1 Manchester City

Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City celebrates
Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City celebrates
Alan Pardew, manager of Crystal Palace looks on
James McArthur of Crystal Palace is challenged by Sergio Aguero
Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City celebrates scoring his side's winner
An injured Sergio Aguero of Manchester City in discussion with Scott Dann

Dominic Fifield

The leaders' pristine record is maintained.

This game had lurched into stoppage time at the end when Samir Nasri eked out rare space in the penalty area and spat a shot at goal which Alex McCarthy could only push out into the six-yard box with his centre-halves wrong-footed.

There was Kelechi Iheanacho, introduced as a substitute seconds earlier, to convert with his first touch and extend his team's advantage at the top.

This was cruel on a Crystal Palace side whose energy and enthusiasm appeared to have kept Manuel Pellegrini's team at bay, only for an 18-year-old Nigerian with a little over a minute of first-team experience to deflate local optimism.

"He's just 18 and started working with our squad last season, but he was unlucky and had a big injury in the last three months of the season," said Pellegrini.

"This year he started pre-season with the squad and will be a very important player for the future. He's one of the reasons I didn't bring another striker in when we sold Edin Dzeko."

Pellegrini, who lost here in April, will be glad not to have to return to this corner of south London in the league this season and will instead rejoice in a gulf from the champions that gapes at 11 points already just five games into Chelsea's slapdash defence of the title.

More pressing for the Chilean, perhaps, was the extent of the injury sustained by Sergio Agüero early on, with a Champions League collision with Juventus to come on Tuesday.

This game had simmered for long periods, a tight and bruising contest, only to be settled at the last by Iheanacho's intervention. City had withstood the home side's urgent opening and steadily imposed some control only to lose Agüero midway through the first period.

The Argentinian had been upended by Scott Dann as the visitors broke at pace - and with Palace almost preoccupied bemoaning the non-award of a penalty for Fernandinho's trip on Yohan Cabaye - to land awkwardly on his right knee. Although he hobbled on for five minutes, the anguished Agüero was eventually summoned from the fray.

With Raheem Sterling absent with a knock, Kevin de Bruyne was an obvious and eager replacement, the £54m signing's first real involvement to find Wilfried Bony, who spun Brede Hangeland and forced McCarthy into a smart save.

The Belgian's eagerness to drop into space off Bony discomforted Palace, whose own frustrations surfaced when Yaya Touré clattered James McArthur on the touchline.

Alan Pardew strode across his opponents' technical area to berate the award of only a yellow card, infuriating Pellegrini in the process to revisit their clash during City's 2-0, win at Newcastle back in January 2014.

The subsequent handshake suggested Pardew knew he had been in the wrong.

His team might have led had Bakary Sako retained more composure from Zaha's centre, Joe Hart later pushing away Jason Puncheon's fine header, but it was the Palace manager offering thanks to the heavens early in the second half. His team had been pressing only for Cabaye to lose possession to Nasri.

He found De Bruyne who darted down the line and swept a pass infield for the galloping Jesús Navas, outpacing Puncheon and Martin Kelly, to collect through the centre. The winger rounded McCarthy but, presented with an open goal, could only scuff a left-footed shot into the side-netting.

City's mood was hardly improved when Cabaye tripped Nasri but their appeals for a penalty went ignored. But, as it turned out, that oversight was not damaging. Nasri's shot and the young substitute's reaction eventually squeezed the leaders through. Iheanacho, an unknown among a team of superstars, has made a name for himself.

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