So there you go – it seems you don’t need strikers after all. Eventually, City coped admirably with a never-before-seen formation, and ran out comfortable winners to keep up the pressure on their only contenders for the title, Chelsea.
All the talk naturally revolved around what team would be selected by Manuel Pellegrini. After the previous match, I suggested sticking with Pozo, though it was a far from ideal situation. As it turned out, he succumbed to illness, which probably made up the manager’s mind, if it wasn’t already made up. Another youth player could have stepped in – more on that later.
The only surprise therefore was the omission of Frank Lampard – in a team without strikers, the ultimate scoring midfielder seemed a shoe-in.
So it was a side packed with midfielders, with James Milner expected to occupy the “false 9” position, whatever that is. It was hard to know what to expect, and in the early stages it was hard to tell if it was working. City were seeing plenty of the ball, but Palace were defending well, getting plenty of men behind the ball when not in possession, then breaking dangerously with pace, especially through the skilful Bolasie. It was a nervy watch as Jedinak was left free to almost head in, Bolasie hit the side-netting and Fraizer Campbell acrobatically kicked wide from just three yards out after a disastrous offside trap was set by City. As we were to see later, they’d get away with that more than once.
Slowly though, City probed more and more. Yaya Toure’s shooting boots were not in in the first half or early in the second, otherwise it could have been less stressful, and Zabaleta dinked the ball just wide after a beautiful through-ball from his wayward-shooting captain, whilst a Silva shot was deflected wide after great work from Nasri. It was of little surprise that City were taking time to grow into a formation that had no target-man at its head. The players needed to learn which of them was expected to burst into the area during attacks and which should hang back and protect against quick counter-attacks.
So no score at half-time, but this was to be a game of two halves. From the moment the game restarted, the attitude and intent from City seemed different. They hogged the ball, camped in Palace’s half and seemed more comfortable with the system. You felt a goal was coming, and there was great relief when it did, albeit with a stroke of luck contained within. Zabaleta made another burst in the inside channel, then had the coolness to cut back to Silva rather than shooting, and his shot was heavily deflected before looping over the line.
It was Silva’s 30th goal for City, in his 200th appearance, the player with the most international caps ever whilst a City player. If only he’d shoot more….which of course he did from a delicious Kolarov cross, and that was 2-0, and that afforded City some breathing space.
City were comfortable, but only because, for once, they benefited from the officials. James McArthur headed in a great cross, but the flag was up immediately. Unfortunately for the linesman and Palace, Fernandinho was running back from the corner flag area and was playing McArthur onside by a good few yards. The linesman was five yards away from where he should have been standing, and the distance between the two players involved made life difficult for him, but it was a poor decision, and the goal should have stood.
If it had stood, it could have been nervy, but the fact remains that it was Palace’s only effort of any merit in the second half.
Apart from maintaining a two-goal cushion, the disallowed goal had one major other advantage, as it allowed Neil Warnock the opportunity to bemoan the officials and get all angry whilst scrunching his beautiful face, all whilst the world’s smallest violins played in the background – and you can’t put a price on that. Managers like Warnock and Harry Redknapp turning up at teams I like such as Crystal Palace and QPR present me with some difficult dilemmas, as I cannot decide whether I want the team to crash and burn or not.
Warnock has a right to call the decision, as it was a bad one, but to claim it turned the game when they were two goals down and had 25% possession was ridiculous and exactly what you’d expect from his type. The decision, he bemoaned, denied his team putting City under the cosh for 20 minutes. Well, you could have tried to do that anyway, and I am guessing your team did keep trying after that, but didn’t get near our goal, so get over it.
In the end, Yaya found his range at last and wellied the ball in off the post, and the game was won. Some bloke called Scott Sinclair came on (nope, me neither), and whilst he didn’t actually get to touch the ball, he should have had a goal, Fernando dallying when he could have played Sinclair through on goal as he made a great run. That would have put City top, for the weekend at least. Still, three points was the most important thing to take from the game, plus no more injuries. Mission accomplished.
The stats tell a story. 72% possession for City, 15 goal attempts (only three on target, all goals) compared to Palace’s 6, whilst the top three passers in all Premier League games on Saturday were Fernandinho (107), Yaya Toure (106) and Samir Nasri (97).
Man of the Match should rightly go to Silva, but there were plenty of players who ran him close. It was Milner who was expected to fill the crucial role up front, but he was seen all over the pitch as usual, and put in his usual shift. Instead, it was Zabaleta who kept bursting through to run the Palace defence ragged, whilst also keeping Bolasie largely quiet after a lively start. On the other flank, the inclusion of Kolarov over Clichy proved to be a great decision as he put in a succession of great crosses and ended up with an assist. Nasri continued his run of good form, the ball glued to his feet, Yaya was imperious, and only Navas frustrated once more. Mangala continued to impress, forming a good partnership with the uber-cool Demichelis, though it is interesting to note that many in the press are now referring to him as a £40m defender – the price continues to rise, as it often does with City purchases.
And so onto City’s decision to pack the midfield and not pick any youngsters, though Ambrose made the bench. Quite simply, City won, so Pellegrini’s decision was justified in the end. He should pick the team that he thinks works best, irrelevant of the players’ nationality, age, skin colour, star sign or choice in pre-match music. That’s what he did , so that should be that. Of course, that wasn’t that, because many questioned the decision not to pick a youngster up front. Never mind that no one who commented knew if there was anyone worthy of the role, apparently City should have picked a youngster anyway. Pozo has been involved recently and because of illness we will not know if he would have been involved once more, but many other youngsters are on loan, and clearly not considered ready for the first team yet, and that’s a great grounding and developmental opportunity for young players, just like it was for the likes of David Beckham and his like all those years ago. Devante Cole scored again yesterday, but scoring for Barnsley is a bit different to scoring in the Premier League.
Gary Neville, a person I am not allowed to respect as a pundit (but sorry, I do, though only on Monday nights), questioned City’s decision not to blood a youngster, and Ric Turner from over at Bluemoon quite rightly pointed out that United are playing Michael Carrick in defence over playing a youngster like Blackett – double-standards as usual. Still, there were a few empty seats at the Emptyhad as there always are pre-Christmas, so United fans have still got that to cling to now that the world’s shortest ever title challenge has ended against a ten-man Aston Villa side.
City will play youngsters when they are good enough – that’s how the academy will help to bring top-class youngsters through, and that is some of United’s players send their own kids there. Having said all that, it would have been nice, once three up, to bring on Ambrose – I’d rather see him than Scott Sinclair, as a three minute cameo by the latter is hardly putting him in the shop window.
So that’s eight wins on the trot and Joe Hart hasn’t conceded a goal for over 450 minutes, even if he has a linesman to thank for that. An impressive resurgence after the season appeared to be ebbing away just a month ago. As always, it needs to continue against West Brom, Burnley, Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday, especially as Chelsea have some tricky games ahead, though I still expect them to win them all.
Meery Xmas/Chanukah/holidays/winter solstice. Have a good one everybody.