Stadium of delight for City as Aguero and Sane ensure afternoon stroll
Sunderland 0-2 Manchester City
After gorging themselves on goals in the cup wins over Monaco and Huddersfield Town, Manchester City enjoyed a stroll in Sunderland, a comfortably sedate walkabout which ensures they remain on course for a top-four finish.
This was nothing more than a routine exercise for a City team in this sort of form against this standard of opposition. It was the equivalent of asking an Olympic gymnast if they can manage a forward roll, but it was still executed perfectly.
City repelled a spirited Sunderland onslaught, took the lead just before half-time, extended it early in the second period and then controlled the game for the final 30 minutes.
"We needed this kind of game," said City manager Pep Guardiola.
"They are the most difficult games because people say it will be easy, but it is so complicated against the teams fighting at the bottom, especially in England.
"We saw that in the first minutes. Sunderland were so aggressive, we were lucky to get to half-time 1-0, but after that we controlled the game.
"It's a pity that the distance, the gap between Chelsea is so big. We started the season with 10 games in a row winning, but our game was not like today. That is normal after seven or eight months together, we know each other better. I know the players better, they know me, that's why we are making results."
Guardiola's side have now won six of their last seven and, after an untidy mid-winter tumble, are starting to impress the judges again, moving back up to third in the league table.
Guardiola once again insisted Chelsea are "unstoppable" in the title race, but while the league campaign has been deflating, City are in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and should also progress to the last eight of the Champions League. His team are on an upward trajectory.
Sunderland, though, are going down, but will do so fighting. Given their track record when it comes to miraculous late escapes, they could still pull off the unthinkable again, but it is looking more and more unlikely.
The problem is, even when they have played well this season, Sunderland have still tended to lose. The fact that City scored with their first shot on target, three minutes before half-time, sums up this campaign under David Moyes. There is spirit and fight, but there is a lack of quality and a dearth of good fortune.
This was as good as they have been for weeks. Sunderland were sharp in the tackle, organised at the back and offered a persistent threat going forward that opened up a flimsy City defence far too many times than a team bottom of the table should.
Sunderland's chances, though, fell to the wrong people. Billy Jones had two headers, six yards out, that could have given his side the lead. The first he put straight into the arms of Willy Caballero, the second he glanced wide when unmarked.
Sunderland allowed City to dominate possession, but continued to threaten, with Defoe smashing a 25-yard shot against the post after good approach play involving Didier Ndong and Fabio Borini. Caballero was still getting to his feet when Borini headed the rebound wide.
City were not enjoying themselves, but took the lead at the end of the half.
Raheem Sterling's cross deflected off the inside of Bryan Oviedo's ankle into the path of Sergio Aguero, and the Argentina international flicked the ball beyond Jordan Pickford at the near post.
City began the second-half like cats eyeing up fish swimming in a shallow pond. Pickford made an excellent save to keep out David Silva's low shot after it had come through a crowd of bodies, but a second goal looked inevitable and was delivered by Leroy Sane.
An exquisite through-ball from Silva found Sane's run, without him having to break stride, and he slotted home off the inside of the far post.
"If we continue to play like that, we have a good chance of staying up," said Moyes. "We made it difficult for them and I've told the players they can be proud. Nobody in our dressing room thinks we are going down."