Tuesday 20 August 2019

Sterling start for City goal machine

West Ham 0-5 Manchester City

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling lifts the ball over West Ham United goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski to score their third goal. Photo: Getty
Manchester City's Raheem Sterling lifts the ball over West Ham United goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski to score their third goal. Photo: Getty

Barney Ronay

Welcome to the new world. Which looks, it must be said, quite a lot like the old world. On a breezy afternoon in East London Manchester City's two-time champions kicked off the new season with a defeat of West Ham that barely required a shift out of second gear.

Raheem Sterling made it four goals in a week with a wonderful hat-trick. Riyad Mahrez was involved throughout, passing, moving and dribbling with a familiar élan, and taking a decisive hand in the first four goals. Kevin De Bruyne looked close to his hard-running best in midfield.

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In between this, VAR kept up a regular commentary on City's dominance, disallowing one goal, retaining another and ordering a penalty re-take.

This will surely become a feature of City's matches given the rhythm of their attacks, the way cut-backs from the flanks and cute runs along the defensive line are key to their best moments.

Otherwise it was a breathtaking show of controlled strength. Their opponents may came forewarned of the way City attack and facing essentially the same set of players. Trying to stop them is another matter.

The stadium was full at kick-off, the skies above an autumnal grey, the atmosphere inside largely undetectable beneath the brain-mangling volume of the pre-match PA.

City's Sergio Aguero scores a penalty for his team's fourth goal. Photo: Getty
City's Sergio Aguero scores a penalty for his team's fourth goal. Photo: Getty

West Ham had seven players in their starting lineup who have joined the club in the past year. This included record signing Sébastien Haller, who had mused on whether he might get a touch of the ball. But West Ham did start brightly, with Jack Wilshere prominent in midfield. Haller was sharp in the opening minutes, dropping deep at times and playing neatly with his back to goal.

Steadily City began to exert their own patterns. With nine minutes gone Mahrez had their first shot at goal, grooving in from the left and drawing a low save from Lukas Fabianksi.

With 20 minutes gone Manuel Pellegrini appeared for the first time on his touchline, a small, sharp-suited figure out there in the middle of all that branded claret carpet, gesturing anxiously towards West Ham's left.

Perhaps he was asking Michail Antonio to offer a little cover to his full-back. If so it went unheeded. Almost immediately Mahrez did his thing, sitting Aaron Cresswell down on the turf inside his own area with that same old shimmy, but shooting into the side-netting.

Raheem Sterling celebrates after scoring his team's third goal. Photo: Getty
Raheem Sterling celebrates after scoring his team's third goal. Photo: Getty

The goal arrived two minutes later courtesy of a lovely move down that side. De Bruyne carried the ball across from the left. Mahrez played a delightful through pass for Kyle Walker, tearing down the right like a man fleeing a nuclear blast zone. The cut-back was deflected on to Gabriel Jesus, who finished neatly.

It was a move City repeated throughout that first half. It seems odd that opponents still set up against them as though in fear of being pierced down the middle. One day someone is going to say hang it all and just play two full-backs instead.

On 32 minutes there was a first intervention from VAR as a bored sounding voice said: "They're checking for a red card." Followed, a few moments later by "... No red card."

Ten minutes before half-time the home team had their first shot at goal, a hooked effort over the shoulder from Haller. And City went to the break having barely broken into a collective sprint.

It was 2-0 five minutes after half-time. This was a glorious move down the right. Mahrez fed De Bruyne on the charge. He glided into space and played a perfectly weighted ball to Sterling, who veered in on goal and finished with ease.

Two minutes later, it was 3-0, then 2-0 again as VAR scrubbed off the goal for a very narrow offside against Sterling's shoulder; a moment of technical offside-dom that offered no advantage and a decision that penalised a fine piece of movement.

Clearly the offside rule needs to be tweaked for the post-VAR world. The best suggestion being that you are onside until the whole of you is offside.

For a while West Ham pressed hard again and after 72 minutes they should have pulled one back. Ryan Fredericks whipped in a cross from the right and Ederson pulled off a fine double save, first from Javier Hernández's left thigh, then from Manuel Lanzini's header. Moments later it was finally 3-0.

Mahrez cut inside and lofted a beautiful little pass over the defence. Sterling read it, stayed onside, then produced a lovely lobbed finish.

There was time for Fabianksi to save a weak 83rd-minute penalty from Sergio Agüero, on as a sub, before VAR ordered a successful re-take for encroachment by Declan Rice and as the stadium began to empty Sterling completed his hat-trick with a lovely low finish after fine work from Rodri.

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