Hull City 0, Manchester City 3: Yaya Toure, a player who would not have expected to see 2017 in the sky blue of Manchester City, demonstrated that he can still play a pivotal role in his team’s hopes of winning silverware in the debut season of manager Pep Guardiola.
The Ivory Coast midfielder’s high-profile spat with his new manager seemed destined for long periods of this season to end in only one way - his departure from the club where he still retains cult hero status.
But Guardiola has returned him to the first team fold in recent weeks, a sign of the Catalan’s pragmatism if nothing else, and last night after a rash challenge by Andy Robertson on Raheem Sterling presented City with a penalty, there was only one man for the occasion.
Toure made no mistake with a clinical shot to the right of goalkeeper David Marshall who, for long periods, had been likely to help Hull collect an unlikely point against City.
Instead, he would be beaten twice more in the minutes that followed that 72nd minute spot kick as City coped well with the pressure of Chelsea having opened a 10-point gap with their victory over Bournemouth earlier.
Five minutes later, City confirmed the victory on the counter-attack as Kevin De Bruyne set up David Silva whose far-post cross was tapped in from close range by Kelechi Iheanacho. And, with the last kick of the game, Sterling’s run into the area ended with a cross which Curtis Davies turned into his own goal.
“Sometimes you play before, sometimes you play later,” said Guardiola. “But it doesn’t matter whether you are seven points or 10 points behind when one team has won 12 in a row.
“It’s like a final for us if you want to be there until the end of the season. We have one game to finish the first half of the season and then the second starts.
“Liverpool went so close one year because they had one game a week and last year Leicester it happened the same. This time Chelsea and Liverpool are the ones. We have played seven more games than them and important ones like the Champs League which is why it will be tough.
“But football is unpredictable. It will be tough, it will be hard, but we have to do absolutely everything to be there. Sometimes you believe something is done and it isn’t.” Still, it was not an afternoon of sheer, unadulterated holiday cheer for Guardiola who saw his recalled England defender John Stones last less than 20 minutes before limping off with a leg injury, quite possibly a hamstring.
It was a sad end to a big occasion for Stones, the 22-year-old £50 million defender who had been left out of Guardiola’s previous two City line-ups in response to some worryingly inconsistent form and some key roles in some troubling City performances although, fortunately, the diagnosis did not appear bad.
“He had a huge kick on his knee and couldn’t run,” explained his manager. “When you look at his knee, it is badly swollen but it is just a kick, not something serious like ligaments.” It was a harsh outcome for Hull who, for the first 70-plus minutes until Robertson’s inexplicable rush of blood, had worked so valiantly to play a high- pressing game that unnerved City and almost led to a dramatic opening goal for Michael Dawson just before the hour when the visitors failed to clear a corner and the defender’s goal bound header was cleared off the line by Bacary Sagna.
That was as close as Hull would come to a dream of ending a dismal run of one win from 15 league games and defying the weight of history which has seen all but three of the previous 24 teams to be bottom at Christmas go on to be relegated. In truth, while Hull matched City’s effort, eclipsed it even, the real quality on display came from Guardiola’s team who had their own close call before Dawson was denied. On 53 minutes, De Bruyne showed admirable footwork, carving out a rare piece of real estate and using the space to send a low shot rebounding against the foot of David Marshall’s right-hand post.
The first half had followed a similar tit-for-tat format, City breaking and threatening without even finding the decisive killer, final ball, while Hull showing plenty of spirit and belief that would not evaporate until Robertson’s intervention and gift of a penalty.
After Stones departed, Jake Livermore headed just over and then shot straight at Claudio Bravo, as City struggled to adapt to the enforced changes, while City’s brightest moments were all too often spearheaded by the ever-consistent De Bruyne.
Perhaps city was a taste of things to come, however, that the closest they came to breaking the deadlock prior to the penalty was through Toure, again, whose sixth minute free-kick cleared the Hull wall and was tipped over expertly by David Marshall.
Marshall 7; Dawson 8, Maguire 7, Davies 5; Elmohamady 5, Livermore 6 (Henriksen 73, 6), Huddlestone 7 (Mason 63, 6), Clucas 6 (Diomande 78, 6), Robertson 5; Mbokani 5, Snodgrass 6.
MANCHESTER CITY (4–2-3-1):
Bravo 6; Sagna 7, Stones 6 (Kolarov 17, 6), Otamendi 8, Clichy 7; Fernandinho 7, Toure 9; Sterling 7, Silva 7 (Fernando 87), Nolito 6 (Iheanacho 56, 6); De Bruyne 8.
Subs (not used):
Caballero, Zabaleta, Navas, Garcia.
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