Mullins can­not lift Wat­ford as Ster­ling leads City charge

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport | Premier League - By Jason Burt CHIEF FOOT­BALL COR­RE­SPON­DENT at Vicarage Road

Fac­ing Manch­ester City was al­ways go­ing to be a daunt­ing task for Wat­ford, but any hope of a bounce from the sack­ing of Nigel Pear­son fell pan­cake flat as their goal dif­fer­ence took an­other nose­dive with this crush­ing de­feat.

Who will be rel­e­gated from the Premier League will go down to the last game of the sea­son, but Wat­ford will be in­creas­ingly fear­ful of their prospects of sur­viv­ing af­ter con­ced­ing four goals here and drop­ping into the bot­tom three.

For care­taker-man­ager Hay­den Mullins the worry will be how Wat­ford ca­pit­u­lated af­ter fall­ing be­hind and how con­fi­dence has col­lapsed

since the sea­son restarted. Play­ing City fol­low­ing their FA Cup semi­fi­nal de­feat was never go­ing to be easy and any­one ob­serv­ing Pep Guardi­ola dur­ing the first-half drinks break could see how de­mand­ing he is and how he ex­pects more. But Wat­ford’s plan was lim­ited and eas­ily un­picked.

In fact, Wat­ford play­ing City at any time has been trau­matic of late, with this re­sult mean­ing the ag­gre­gate score from their past three meet­ings alone – in­clud­ing last sea­son’s FA Cup fi­nal – is 18-0 (6-0, 8-0, 4-0), while scrolling even fur­ther back it in­creases to 39-3.

The two goals for Ra­heem Ster­ling mean he has scored 19 times in the league this sea­son, which is his best re­turn, and he has 33 in 54 for club and coun­try this cam­paign. Kevin De Bruyne claimed an­other as­sist and has 19 for the sea­son, just one be­hind Thierry Henry’s record of 20, while Phil Fo­den has five

goals since the restart. With Nor­wich City to face on the fi­nal day, be­fore City pre­pare for the sec­ond leg of their Cham­pi­ons League last16 tie against Real Madrid, there will be yet more op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Guardi­ola knows they must im­prove and, when in­vited to praise Ster­ling, it was pointed he made much of the lack of con­sis­tency that means this was the first time this sea­son City have won four league games in a row. “He is qual­ity,” Guardi­ola said. “But the per­sonal achieve­ments are al­ways re­lated to how we have done in the Premier League. We fin­ished far be­hind the cham­pi­ons, so that is why Ra­heem must not be happy for the sea­son.”

What can Mullins de­mand? In three games as care­taker – two in De­cem­ber and now – he has col­lected just one point with­out a goal be­ing scored, but it all comes down to try­ing to rouse a much-im­proved per­for­mance on Sun­day at Ar­se­nal.

The logic in sack­ing Pear­son was that a re­ac­tion could be pro­voked in the fi­nal two games, but the re­al­ity is Mullins sim­ply did not man­age to elicit that in game one. It was, from the first whis­tle to the last, about lim­it­ing the dam­age and frus­trat­ing their op­po­nents with a 4-5-1 for­ma­tion, which left Troy Deeney – nurs­ing a knee prob­lem which is a blow to the team’s prospects – iso­lated.

They claimed just 23 per cent pos­ses­sion and most of that was deep in their own half.

The out­stand­ing Ben Fos­ter had no chance with City’s open­ing goal, the first from Ster­ling, as the winger brought down a mis-hit shot by Kyle Walker be­fore strik­ing the ball high past the goal­keeper. Ster­ling earned the penalty from which he scored again, be­fore half-time, af­ter he com­bined with Fo­den and feinted to shoot. It sent Chris­tian Kabasele to the turf with Will Hughes catch­ing Ster­ling, who stepped up to take the penalty only for his ef­fort to be bril­liantly saved by Fos­ter. The re­bound fell to Ster­ling, who side-footed home.

Al­ready it was about keeping the score down, with Fos­ter again im­press­ing as he turned away shots by Gabriel Je­sus and Ster­ling be­fore he once more de­nied Ster­ling, only for Fo­den to vol­ley the re­bound into the net from close range. Wat­ford fell fur­ther be­hind when Aymeric La­porte rose un­chal­lenged to meet a De Bruyne free-kick and head back across Fos­ter.

Sink­ing feel­ing: Tom Clev­er­ley re­acts af­ter Ra­heem Ster­ling’s open­ing goal for City

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