City had to work very hard in this predictably physical encounter on a freezing December evening, and Yaya Toure’s well struck penalty was all that separated us from Everton side who tested us late on. City’s victory was deserved but came at a cost, though, with Sergio Aguero suffering a painful knee ligament injury early on after a late tackle on him.
Buoyed by four straight wins, and Newcastle’s surprise lunchtime victory over Chelsea, we stepped out into this Winter’s evening full of optimism. The visitors came to Manchester on the back of an insipid 1-1 home draw to Hull which marooned them in mid-table, but games against Everton are always keenly contested, and City are 100% correct not to underestimate them. Despite numerous similarities between both clubs, especially in terms of size of support, many playing links, and of course Joe Mercer, an Evertonian by birth, being our greatest manager to date, the rivalry and antipathy between two very different but great cities, and indeed cultures, make City and Everton like oil and water. Everton are never going to be any City fan’s favourite other team (if we have one), and vice versa. There might not be the hatred of a Liverpool-United fixture, but this is always a hard fought fixture, keenly followed by two passionate sets of fans.
When Sergio Aguero was felled by Besic straight after after he got up from being brought down by Coleman’s challenge from behind, we knew Everton weren’t taking any prisoners. It was obvious even from our seats 100 yards away that Aguero was seriously hurt as he stayed down for a long time. A text message from a friend who was watching on TV, informing me that he was in tears, only heightened fears. Serge gingerly walked round the pitch in pain with the physio to applause from the City sections. Every City fan will hope and pray that his injury is not serious. Without him we lacked his strength, pace, finishing and all round brilliance.
Not that City took this lying down (no pun intended) and we got stuck into this match with some meaty tackles. Mangala took this too far when he karate kicked Eto’o in the back when going up for a corner, and can count himself very lucky that he did was only booked rather than getting the red card that he deserved. It was stupid and from the replays on Match of the Day later, it looked spiteful. Later on Fernando’s high boot connected with Gareth Barry’s head but was clearly an attempt to play the ball. It was rather, though, reckless and could also have incurred a red card for dangerous play, but thankfully for us, only a yellow was brandished.
It was a scrappy start to the match and it was 20 minutes before we had any shot of note: Yaya firing to the left of Howard’s goal.
City took the lead in the 21st minute after a contentious penalty was awarded. James Milner advanced into the box and went down and from my view in the Colin Bell Stand it looked like a shoulder charge from Jagielka knocked him over. It was a slight surprise that referee Andre Marriner pointed to the spot, but his view was better than mine. Whilst it was a soft penalty, TV replays later showed that Jagielka’s shove made contact with Milner’s thigh and hip area, and therefore it could be viewed as a foul. We’ve certainly seen them given before, and thankfully for us, we got this one.
The debate around us was who should take the penalty in the absence of the ice cool Sergio Aguero. Yaya Toure (who incidentally was the popular choice), stepped up and drove the penalty into the net with great precision, just between the left hand post and Howard’s dive.
City tried to build on the lead and had most of the play up to the break, as we pressed high up the field with Yaya, Fernando and Milner fighting fire with fire, Navas providing pace and width down the right, and Nasri most prominent of all in a role just behind Pozo, frequently making the play. Jose Pozo, who was on for Sergio Aguero, had a shot deflected behind for a corner, and Navas fired wide from Clichy’s left wing cross. For the visitors, Mirallas headed a corner deflected wide by the lunging Fernando. There was still time before the break for Mangala to head a corner wide before the great as City looked the more likely to score.
The Blue Moon was rising and half time began with the jaunty beats of The Inspiral Carpets’ Saturn Five bringing back fond memories of days gone by. We weren’t on a different planet to Everton on this occasion, but could we maintain and indeed build on our lead?
City started the second half pressing for more goals, and went closest in the 50th minute. In an exciting move, Milner crossed from the left and Howard saved Pozo’s crisp attempt with his legs.
Five minutes later, Mirallas blazed over when well placed for the visitors, but City were the stronger side. Nasri and Milner were very good indeed, and were the most inventive and industrious of our attacking players.
City couldn’t build on the lead mainly due to Howard’s goalkeeping and our tendency to over-elaborate and try to walk the ball in. This was best illustrated when Milner cleverly played in Nasri who had three chances to shoot but ended up taking the ball too far before being tackled on the by-line. We missed Aguero’s directness and strong running, and it made for a nervy finish as the game became more even in the final quarter.
It took a combination of Milner and Mangala to deflect an Eto’o shot wide in the 69th minute. Mirallas had a free kick deflected over three minutes later then Eto’o fired over after a teasing run by substitute Ross Barkley.
Milner was moved from the left flank to the right and Nasri slotted into the left as Pellegrini brought on Lampard for Navas as he sought to stiffen up midfield, and this almost paid dividends. Lampard played a glorious chipped pass which sub Dzeko chested across the box and Milner volleyed just over.
The game was flowing from end–to-end, and our victory owed much to Hart’s brilliant save in the 82nd minute after Barry and Eto played in Lukaku. It was a horrible moment as the Belgian striker’s volley flew towards goal but Hart pushed the ball behind.
A minute later Nasri had a volley saved by Howard, and Dzeko had an effort deflected behind. There was time for pantomime villain Barkley to get booked for his serial diving but City saw the game out for an important victory that puts us just 3 points behind leaders Chelsea.
Everton clearly have talent and spirit but City’s extra class on top of our spirit won the day. City battled and scrapped for this deserved victory Granted the penalty was soft and Mangala and Fernando could have seen red in the first half but Everton were no angels either. Coleman’s and Besic’s challenges might not have intended to seriously injure Aguero but they made sure he was cynically and recklessly cut down. Even dear old Gareth Barry, once of this parish, could have had an early bath for his flailing arm that cuffed his mate James Milner.
Results wise, it had been a very good day, but Sergio Aguero’s injury may be more significant. As happy as we were to catch the tram away from this game, there were more than a few of us checking smartphones for news of his injury and speculating on how long it might be before he is back.
Goal: Yaya Toure 23 (pen)
Hart: Largely unemployed but handled well and showed his powers of concentration are first class with a match-winning save: 8
Zabaleta: A game that was made for him. Just the kind of robust, hard defender that you need in a game like this. His left-sided opponent Mirallas only profited when he moved inside to be marked by one of the centre backs: 7
Demichelis: Quietly efficient at centre back and read the game well: 7
Mangala: Should have been red-carded and someone needs to have a word otherwise we always have a £35m liability. Improved in the 2nd half: 6
Clichy: Excellent defending, making some good tackles and some good runs forward where he is using the ball better: 8
Navas: Had a good game, working hard up and down the right flank, doing some good defensive work when needed and using his pace in attack: 7
Fernando: He could have been sent off for his head high challenge but there was no mal intent. His and Yaya’s tenacity in central midfield was particularly crucial and his passing was more progressive game than previously: 7
Yaya: No one can fault him for effort in recent games. His aggression led the way in central midfield and was a good example to all. Long may it continue:. 7
Milner: Industrious and skilful down the left and later right, and showed great precision with his crossing and passing: one cross field ball was brilliant. 8
Nasri: Relished playing in the “number ten role” and was our chief creative force. Combined really well with Milner and Clichy down the left: 8 ***Man of the match***
Aguero: Sadly cut down in his prime. Best wishes, Sergio: n/a
Subs: Pozo (for Aguero 6): Would have had a goal but for Howard’s legs. Competed well, but clearly needs to bulk up all round. A little naïve in his running but an encouraging show, nevertheless: 6
Dzeko (for Pozo 61): Some good touches. Needs to keep pressing more: 6
Lampard (for Navas 77): Quickly showed his class with that lovely pass: 7
Best Oppo: Barry: Tough, resolute and most Everton play started with him. His pass initiated their best chance late on, and thankfully Hart was equal to Lukaku’s shot: 7
Refwatch: Andre Marriner: By the letter of the law he could have sent off two City players and one from Everton but didn’t, so he’s not going to get slaughtered here. Should have played advantage when Barkley dived for the last time, otherwise got most decisions right: 6