Manchester City, until now the season’s most frustrating under-achievers, provided a timely reminder of their title potential with a sumptuous 4-0 victory at West Ham on a night when manager Pep Guardiola made big decisions which brought big rewards.
Goals from Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, new signing Gabriel Jesus — his first for the club — and a Yaya Toure penalty secured a masterful victory at the London Stadium which moves City up to fifth in the Premier League, only a point adrift of second-placed Tottenham and 10 behind leaders Chelsea.
“We did really well. We scored some nice goals and it was overall a very good performance,” said Kevin De Bruyne.
“We were well organised and we played nice football. Everything came together for us and if we work this way then we are very dangerous.
“The young players we have are very sharp, they are so quick. It’s almost impossible for us to follow them in midfield. They bring great energy, they are so young and have a bright future and I’m happy they are with us.”
Gabriel Jesus said: “I was looking forward to scoring my first goal and to help the team. I’m used to scoring goals but I always like to assist and help the team in other ways too.
“If I’m in the starting lineup it’s great, but if not I will try to help the team anyway. I came here to help the team and the adaptation process is going really well, my teammates and the club are really helping me so I can just focus on football which is what I like.”
On this form, and with a trip to Stamford Bridge still to come in April, it may not be frivolous to suggest City’s title hopes are not yet over, particularly as Guardiola, who has been criticised for failing to adjust his principles to suit English football since arriving from Bayern, finally made decisive decisions.
The Spaniard set the tone for a potentially season-defining night by dropping floundering goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, replacing him with Willie Caballero, and choosing Brazilian wonderkid Jesus ahead of Sergio Aguero, who was left on the bench.
The latter was particularly brave when you consider Aguero has been City’s talisman for so long and has scored 18 goals this season despite reports that he is yet to win his manager over
The performance of 19-year-old Jesus, who cost €33m from Palmeiras, proved Guardiola right, however. The whisper at the Etihad is that the youngster — who has four goals in his last six games for Brazil — is preferred because he provides far more defensively than Aguero but just as much going forward. He showed all those assets in a scintillating display last night.
Woeful West Ham contributed to their own downfall, making some terrible mistakes in a match in which they were so clearly second best, but Guardiola’s side were at their most fluid and had effectively won the game by half-time.
Aaron Cresswell gave away the ball in midfield to gift them the opener, but the way De Bruyne burst forward before playing an exquisite one-two with Jesus was vintage City and proved the building block for a special night.
The second arrived four minutes later when Leroy Sane set up Silva to score from close range — and the third saw Obiang give the ball away before the visitors broke with real venom. The ball pinged from Sane to Sterling to Jesus — and ended up in the net before Slaven Bilic’s side had even blinked.
Television cameras briefly flicked to Aguero on the bench, his face etched more with worry than elation, and you suspect he must be seriously concerned about the arrival of Jesus and his rival’s instant form. The Brazilian had shown glimpses of his potential when he provided an assist in the FA Cup tie at Crystal Palace and Guardiola made it clear he was chosen ahead of Aguero on merit. “Aguero is fit,” he said. “We played the three guys up front against Crystal Palace and I decide to give the same continuity.”
It’s easy to see why Guardiola likes the Brazilian so much and he certainly lived up to the pre-match comments of experienced teammate Pablo Zabaleta who said: “He is not your typical number nine that we see in the Premier League who is tall and strong. His mobility, his skills, he is really good on the ball and works a lot without it. He wants the ball, he tries hard and he will have a fantastic time with Manchester City for sure.”
West Ham made a double substitution in a bid to stop him, new signing Robert Snodgrass and Edimilson Fernandes both arriving, but it was never going to be their night. Instead, defender Jose Fonte, only just signed from Southampton, completed a miserable debut as he brought down Sterling when the former Liverpool man twisted and turned on a perfect through ball from De Bruyne. Toure’s penalty, his 14th successive successful spot kick for City, put the result beyond doubt and kept his 100% record intact.
City could afford to bring on Aguero after 74 minutes, a sign of the strength of their squad, and with John Stones imperious at the the back they were never in trouble.
The real test now for Guardiola’s men is whether they can bring this kind of performance in every game after what has been an inconsistent season until now. The fixture list is briefly kind to them: Swansea, Bournemouth, Sunderland, and Stoke in their next four matches before facing Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal in a row from mid-March.
By then we’ll know if the new City really are as good as they look — and whether they left it too late to show it.
Randolph 6, Byram 5, Reid 6, Fonte 4, Cresswell 5, Obiang 5 (Snodgrass 64; 6), Noble 6, Antonio 6, Lanzini 5, Feghouli 5 (Fernandes 64; 5), Carroll 6 (Fletcher 80; 5).
Caballero 6, Sagna 6, Stones 8, Otamendi 7, Kolarov 7, Toure 7, Sane 8, Silva 7 (Delph 80; 6), De Bruyne 7, Sterling 7 (Aguero 73; 6), Gabriel Jesus 8.
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