Sunderland 0 Manchester City 1: He may be too diplomatic to admit it, but Manuel Pellegrini’s quest to leave Pep Guardiola with the toughest of acts to follow moved a step closer as Manchester City maintained their four-pronged pursuit of silverware thanks to the brilliance of Sergio Aguero.
The in-form striker sealed victory with a clinical first-half strike, his 12th goal in his last 10 Premier League appearances, to maintain City’s bid for a third top-flight title in the five seasons. They are through to the last 16 of the FA Cup, and relaunch their Champions League campaign this month before ending February with a trip to Wembley for the Capital One Cup final against Liverpool. It’s far from a shoddy record for the Chilean to boast as his time in charge draws to a close.
The 62-year-old will be replaced by Guardiola in the summer. Great things are expected under the Spaniard, but the 45-year-old will have his work cut out to match the exploits of the South American if City continue in this vein.
They showed they can excel in the ‘dirty’ side of the game as they ground out their latest victory without ever reaching the heights. Their third victory over Sunderland this term intensified the second-bottom Wearsiders’ relegation worries after a spirited display failed to prevent the hosts from stumbling to a seventh defeat in their last 10 league games.
There remains hope for Sam Allardyce and his troops, who were among the most active of Premier League clubs in the recent transfer market. That included a move for Wahbi Khazri, the £9m January arrival from Bordeaux who entered the fray as Sunderland’s third home debutant in an overall team display which suggests the north-east side still have the ability to climb out of the bottom three, however bleak their situation may look at present.
Only a fine late save from Joe Hart to thwart a long-range effort from Billy Jones saw Sunderland denied a point, John O’Shea firing over woefully from the resulting corner when the ball dropped invitingly for the Irish defender eight yards out.
While City made five changes, there were two made by the hosts, with Allardyce handing full debuts to the German Jan Kirchhoff who was employed as a defensive shield in front of the back four, and centre-back Lamine Kone.
The imposing Ivory Coast international was spared an unfortunate own goal with virtually his first touch when Vito Mannone got down well at his near post to save his skewed attempted clearance from David Silva’s cross.
Aguero should have done better when firing narrowly wide from distance as Sunderland stood off on the edge of their own area, but he didn’t have long to wait to register his sixth goal in four games in the 16th minute.
Yaya Toure spread play wide to find Jesus Navas, whose low driven deflected cross from the right was allowed to run the width of the area to Aguero, who took a touch before despatching a shot into the corner of the net from a dozen yards, a nasty gash to his calf from Jones’ despairing attempt to deny the South American an unwanted memento of the deadlock-breaking goal.
Lengthy treatment saw a patched-up Aguero remain City’s main attacking threat, as he curled a 20-yard effort onto the roof of the net with Mannone struggling to cover at the culmination of a swift four-man move that carved the Sunderland rearguard open with alarming ease.
Despite City’s dominance, Sunderland should have gone in at the interval at least level in what turned out to be an eventful half for debutant Kone, who headed Jeremain Lens’ free-kick wide from close range after evading his ponderous marker Nicolas Otamendi.
There was further threat from the hosts before the break, Hart saving smartly from Jermain Defoe low to his left, before smuggling away Jones’ effort from the rebound with the aid of a post as the hosts ended the half strongly but without reward.
The pattern was repeated after the break, City requiring several last-ditch clearances to ensure they returned from the north-east with a maximum haul of points to bolster Pellegrini’s efforts to leave Guardiola with the most difficult of legacies upon which to improve.
(3-5-2) Mannone 6; Jones 7, Kone 7, O’Shea 6, van Aanholt 6; Kirchhoff 6; Lens 6 (Khazri 46, 6), M’Vila 6, Cattermole 6 (Johnson 75, 5), Borini 5 (N’Doye 83, 6); Defoe 6.
Pickford, Brown, Yedlin, Watmore.
MANCHESTER CITY (4-4-2):
Hart 8; Clichy 7, Otamendi 5, Demichelis 5, Sagna 5; Navas 5 (Sterling 76, 6), Fernandinho 6, Toure 5 (Kolarov 80, 5), Silva 7; Iheanacho 4 (Fernando 46, 6), Aguero 8. Substitutes: Caballero, Zabaleta, Celina, Barker.
S Attwell 7
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