Manchester City 2-1 West Ham
The unstoppable force, determined to end the Premier League title race before Easter, are now on a run of 20 consecutive wins and with a flourish worthy of the great adaptability of Pep Guardiola’s teams, Manchester City’s goals were supplied by his two centre-halves.
The control of the league leaders can seem overwhelming at times, and behind the closed doors of the English game there feels even less likelihood of error with no-one to distract them from their task. They were remorseless in breaking down David Moyes’ upwardly mobile side, patiently loosening the screws and removing the supports of the opposition’s defensive structure before breaking through with two classic goals of this City era.
The first of the two assisted by Kevin de Bruyne, swept in from right side on his left foot, and the second after half-time arrowed back by Riyad Mahrez after he had infiltrated the right side of the opposition’s area.
All that was unusual were the goal scorers themselves, Ruben Dias with his first for the club and then John Stones with the winner. In the 16 games they have partnered one another in the team the pair have scored more goals between them than they have conceded.
That is the kind of stability that has eluded their erstwhile title rivals Liverpool, now just another challenger trailing much further back down the road. At full-time, City’s 14th straight league win had them 13 points clear of Manchester United in second place and a further 22 points clear of the club who were champions last season. With positions reversed, it was the same gulf — 22 points — between Liverpool and City at this stage last season when both had played 26 games.
That swing of 44 points is one of the great mysteries of the Covid-19 era.
Guardiola says that his team have never been off the pace, they were simply not at the level of Liverpool last season. “I know that Liverpool had less points,” he said. “I don’t know how many more points we have than last season but this is a good example of what we have done today.
“Nothing counts in three days [when City play] against Wolves. I am not saying about season after season. In the last four seasons we were so consistent, last season as well, we finished second, we had enough points to be champions in other seasons but we faced a team that was exceptional like we were in the previous two seasons. We didn’t drop much, even last season. We won the Carabao Cup, [got to the] FA Cup semis. We didn’t finish fifth, sixth, seventh. Every season is a new chapter. Nothing counts what you have done in the past. It is a good lesson for all of us.”
The unbeaten run in all competitions now extends to 27 games for City and the confidence is clear to see. Not least when Guardiola selected a side that had seven changes to the one that triumphed over Borussia Monchengladbach on Wednesday. By the end he did not even have to summon Raheem Sterling or Joao Cancelo from the bench, as City absorbed the late pressure and survived a header from Issa Diop in what was the last major action of the game.
It was by no means a bad afternoon for West Ham, whose equaliser from Michail Antonio before half-time was the culmination of a crisp passing sequence that moved the ball quickly out right and forward. Moyes picked a formation that aligned five in defence when they were out of possession — which was most of the game — and if they could have measured their passes better perhaps there would have been more chances. But that is what City do to you.
Guardiola did bring on Gabriel Jesus and Phil Foden before the winner with the Brazilian replacing Sergio Aguero. The Argentine had started his first league game since the equivalent fixture in east London in October and looked slow and untidy with his touch. His wayward attempt to bring the ball under control with his chest had ceded possession for West Ham’s goal.
It was worked right by West Ham and Vlad Coufal’s cross was turned goalward by Jesse Lingard and prodded in by Antonio.
It has come to the stage where not getting blitzed by City can be considered a good outcome for the opposition, certainly when in comparison with the fate that has befallen some. Moyes was philosophical about the defeat and he can afford to be with his West Ham side menacing the top four places. “Performance-wise if we play like that until the end of the season it will give us every chance of staying at the top,” he said.
He lamented the chances that had passed his team by at times, the slender margins between a good performance and securing the draw that he felt his team were capable of earning. “We are not getting carried away because we lost today,” Moyes said, “but I want to praise the players for how well they have done against the best team in Europe”
For City, now there is the visit of Wolves on Tuesday before the Manchester derby on Sunday. This never-ending set of challenges is what Guardiola describes as so exhausting mentally and physically for his players. In the creative roles, De Bruyne and Mahrez were a threat that West Ham contained when they were at their best by trying to close the gaps between their defenders as best they could. One burst by De Bruyne down the left in the second half took him all the way to the byline and then in the centre, Aguero made the wrong choice of run to meet a ball that was sent across the face of goal.
De Bruyne’s ball from the left created the first goal for Dias, recycled after a corner. Stones’ run between the two West Ham centre-halves was enough distraction and the Portuguese came in behind the three of them to make the connection. Moyes pointed out that the ball had been allowed to travel too far. The second made by Mahrez was much harder to stop, especially with the quality of finish provided by Stones
“To be able (to do) what we have done is amazing,” Guardiola said later, “but of course we don’t have titles.”
That remains the case for now, although it is hard to see it staying that way come the end of the season.
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