By Phil Banerjee
MANCHESTER CITY 4 CRYSTAL PALACE 0 (HT 2-0)
City stylishly beat Crystal Palace to keep the heat on at the top at a wintry Etihad but had to work hard to win this match.
Pellegrini made five changes and opted for a 4-4-2 formation, with young Kelechi Iheanacho up front alongside Sergio Aguero. Behind them, Fabian Delph and Fernando were in central midfield with Silva and De Bruyne in starting positions to the left and right respectively. He also changed both full backs, bringing in Pablo Zabaleta on his 31st birthday, and Aleks Kolarov.
Palace actually could have been in front in the 2nd minute had Delaney placed his free header a foot or two to the side of Joe Hart and played some decent football. They paid for such profligacy 20 minutes later when Delph hit a low powerful shot that zipped under Hennessey and into the net, it looked he should have stopped it on first viewing but the ball did bounce low and travel very fast.
Palace could have equalised two minutes later but Dann’s free header from around the penalty spot failed to test Hart. Hart nearly threw away the lead when his errant throw hit a Palace player and Delaney fired over. He did redeem himself with a full length save to push out a Cabaye free kick.
City took full advantage of this and played some intricate football which turned the game inexorably in our favour. In a sweeping move Silva played the ball to Iheanacho who laid the ball back to Aguero whose rising goal bound shot was deflected in by Scott Dann, It was definitely Aguero’s goal but it was still a slice of poetic justice bearing in mind the Palace defender’s hack which injured Serge’s left knee in the game at Selhurst Park.
With Delph leading the way, giving an impressive, industrious all round display in central midfield, City were in control up to the break, playing sophisticated football as the snow fell over the Etihad.
Palace, though, rallied and dominated the first 11 minutes of the second half. City’s 4-4-2 was not bringing the best out of Silva and De Bruyne, who despite Silva’s advances infield, were too far apart to combine significantly. The 4-4-2 saw us outnumbered in midfield, so Pellegrini made a tactical change, bringing on Yaya for Iheanacho, bringing the Ivorian’s considerable physical presence, intelligence, composure and skill, as well as parity in terms of numbers.
City were much more cohesive after this and it took just 11 minutes for this change to bear fruit with a goal of beautiful precision. Yaya found De Bruyne with an incisive ball on the right hand side of the box and he squared it to Aguero, who duly swept in to make it 3-0. They all made it look so easy. The displays flashed up that no player has more assists than De Bruyne in Europe.
Palace to their credit kept trying to play their way back into the game, and Cabaye fired just wide in the 77th minute.
City allowed Palace to have the ball, to draw them out so that City could exploit the space behind them on the break. This approach paid off when De Bruyne won a challenge deep inside City’s half, touching the ball to Aguero who played the ball past a defender before sprinting forward at pace. Aguero advanced into the box and could have scored himself, with just Hennessy to beat, but he unselfishly squared to Silva, who took a touch to cut inside before smashing the ball into the net.
After that Cabaye really should have been shown a 2nd yellow after a blatant shove, leaving referee Moss open again to a charge of a lack of consistency.
The 4-0 scoreline might have been cruel on Palace, who are a decent side, but it was a deserved win and a good performance from City. It as a case of City playing well rather than Palace playing badly. Indeed, it was a day of positives for City: after a dodgy start, our defence gained a 3rd consecutive clean sheet; Otamendi was superbly aggressive, denying both Wickham and Chamakh a kick; Pablo Zabaleta made a very good return at right back; man of the match Delph gave a good all round account of himself with a very assertive and athletic performance in central midfield; and most importantly City put pressure on Arsenal and Leicester with an important win.
Hart 6; Zabaleta 7 Otamendi 8 Demichelis 7 Kolarov 6 (Clichy 7); De Bruyne 6 Delph 9 Fernando 7 Silva 6; Iheanacho 7 (Yaya 7) Aguero 8 (Navas na)