City look­ing in­vin­ci­ble but Pep plays down the gap

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Football - By Jim White at the Hawthorns

The Manch­ester City ma­chine smoothes on, un­trou­bled, un­chal­lenged, unas­sail­able. For­get the score­line, made pre­sentable by Matt Phillips’s late con­so­la­tion for West Bromwich. This was a vic­tory for the league lead­ers that gave ac­cu­rate def­i­ni­tion to the term rou­tine. Al­though not at their cor­us­cat­ing best, with their five-point ad­van­tage at the top of the ta­ble re­tained, al­ready City look a team so su­pe­rior to any­thing else in the Premier League, Arsenal’s record of head­ing through a sea­son un­beaten must seem in­creas­ingly at­tain­able. Not that their man­ager is get­ting car­ried away.

“Have you ever heard of the league be­ing won in Jan­uary?” Pep Guardiola said when asked if he ac­knowl­edged Jurgen Klopp’s be­lief that City are so far ahead they will wrap the ti­tle up in the new year. “Me nei­ther.”

While City headed back up the M6 on a cloud of sat­is­fac­tion, it was a re­sult which will have done lit­tle to curb the stir of re­volt around the Hawthorns. The large num­ber of empty seats in the home sec­tions was a telling in­dict­ment of Tony Pulis’s ap­proach: Pulis­ball is slip­ping rapidly out of favour here. This may have been the most at­trac­tive foot­balling side in the coun­try com­ing to visit, but Black Coun­try ex­pec­ta­tions of any like-minded re­sponse from their own team are low in­deed.

And so it proved. Five de­fend­ers and three hold­ing mid­field­ers: Pulis was never go­ing to re­spond to Pep Guardiola’s visit by go­ing toe-to-toe in an at­tack­ing slug-out.

From the off, West Brom, play­ing so deep they should have been col­lec­tively fit­ted with aqualungs, were im­me­di­ately obliged to block and parry, to fling them­selves at City shots. There is, how­ever, only so of­ten it is pos­si­ble to cur­tail ex­cel­lence. After nine min­utes of dom­i­nance City, as is their wont, passed the ball deftly and pa­tiently across the pitch un­til it ar­rived at the feet of Fer­nand­inho, who pushed it wide to Leroy Sane. The Ger­man, who this week re­vealed he has a new tat­too on his back of him scor­ing against Monaco last sea­son, was nee­dle sharp in his de­liv­ery, bend­ing a pre­cise left foot shot be­yond Ben Foster.

But be­fore gloom could to­tally en­velop the sta­dium, West Brom re­sponded. Four min­utes after that opener, the old City hand Gareth Barry seized con­trol of a bounc­ing ball ahead of David Silva, spun round to cre­ate some space and, see­ing that his two for­wards were out­man­ning John Stones, fired a de­li­cious for­ward chip. With Salomon Ron­don as his wing­man, Jay Ro­driguez out­mus­cled Stones and chipped the City keeper, Eder­son.

Any thought the home side might long match their vis­i­tors was sec­onds later dis­pelled, how­ever. Sane re­turned the ear­lier favour and set up Fer­nand­inho. His long-range shot looked in­nocu­ous, but took a de­flec­tion off Ahmed Hegazi’s an­kle suf­fi­cient to leave Foster non­plussed.

If City were not at their spin­ning, buzzing best, if Kevin De Bruyne was find­ing him­self out­num­bered too of­ten (late on he even missed the kind of chance he nor­mally buries be­fore break­fast), they were still el­e­gance it- self in pos­ses­sion. And still the chances kept com­ing, Jonny Evans re­quired con­stantly to step in to stop the vis­i­tors’ pin­ball in­ter­changes.

Penned back by the waves of pur­pleshirted at­tacks, the out ball for Al­bion was – amaz­ing to report – long. It obliged Ron­don to spend much of his time wrestling with Stones and Ni­co­las Ota­mendi for pos­ses­sion. As a tac­ti­cal ap­proach dam­age lim­i­ta­tion is un­likely to stir the soul. It was not long be­fore the pointed chant came from the home sec­tions: “Tony Pulis: your foot­ball is s---.” But the blan­ket smother did at least en­sure that free-scor­ing City were only a goal ahead at the break. It was how to re­spond that Al­bion were un­sure. When Kieran Gibbs found him­self on the edge of the City area after Ro­driguez’s deft lay-off header, he ran out of ideas, space and pos­ses­sion. The prob­lem was, the longer the home side re­mained pas­sive and de­fen­sive, fear­ful of the counter, the more likely City were to score again.

So it proved. The stun­ning third was peak City. Sane wove in from the left, passed to De Bruyne, who moved the ball quickly on to David Silva. With the West Brom de­fence on its heels, he played in Kyle Walker, whose lovely bend­ing, arc­ing fizz of a cross was banged home with his first touch of the ball by the substitute, Ra­heem Ster­ling. And while the late con­so­la­tion from Phillips, again set free by Barry’s vi­sion­ary de­liv­ery, set up an in­jury-time flurry of hit and hope, the sad truth for lo­cal taste was that it was way too lit­tle, way too late. Thus do City march on unas­sail­able. They will soon be joined by Phil Fo­den, the player of the tour­na­ment, who scored twice for Eng­land in the fi­nal of the U-17s World Cup.

“In which po­si­tion did he score for them? Be­cause when he comes back I will play him in that po­si­tion,” smiled Guardiola of his young star­let. With ev­ery pass­ing week, the fu­ture looks in­creas­ingly to be in City hands.

Rapid re­sponse: Ra­heem Ster­ling cel­e­brates scor­ing Manch­ester City’s third goal with his first touch after com­ing off the bench

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