Soccer

Man City, on brink of title, are already laying down marker for next one

Manchester City beat Crystal Palace 2-0 on Saturday in a result which all but settles this season’s Premier League title race and lays down a marker for the next.

Pep Guardiola had one eye firmly on Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal second leg against Paris Saint-Germain by making eight changes before enduring a substandard goalless first half, yet his side still possessed the quality to step up a level after the break to end this contest in 83 seconds.

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No moment will ever rival Sergio Aguero‘s stoppage-time winner against Queens’ Park Rangers that handed City their first Premier League crown in 2012 but a similar sense of deliverance greeted his 57th-minute strike which broke Palace’s spirited resistance. It was a goal of sublime quality, too. Benjamin Mendy fired a pass into his path, but Aguero’s first touch was magical, enabling him to slow his stride before firing high into the net in devastating fashion. And this from the guy they are letting go for nothing this summer.

Ferran Torres is at the opposite end of his City career having arrived from Valencia last summer, and he signposted his potential with the visitors’ second goal less than two minutes later, curling home from the edge of the box to cap a fine individual performance and record his 10th goal of the campaign.

City’s other attacking players on display at Selhurst Park, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus, are somewhere in the middle, the former in the midst of a patchy run of form that has seen him play a slightly less pivotal role — hence playing in this game — and Guardiola passing a somewhat damning judgement of the latter’s ability to lead the line by opting to play with two midfielders in attack or use a false No. 9. That template is designed to land the biggest prize of all, the Champions League, which has so far eluded Guardiola at City. But it says something about their domestic pre-eminence that minds can be firmly elsewhere yet they still carve out a win that will secure them a third Premier League in four seasons if Liverpool beat Manchester United at Old Trafford tomorrow.

Given this fixture fell between two mammoth meetings against PSG, City were perhaps understandably slow into stride, “low on gas” as Guardiola later put it. Torres volleyed wide and Sterling was denied by a last-ditch tackle from Tyrick Mitchell but Palace largely kept City at bay early on.

Long-serving Palace coach Ray Lewington is often heard above the noise created by Selhurst Park when the ground is full, so you can imagine how his voice resonates with fans still absent. “Keep it moving,” he shouted as Palace moved the ball from left to right, Andros Townsend slipping in Joel Ward for a cutback which Rodri only partially intercepted, allowing Christian Benteke to pick up the loose ball three yards out with his back to goal. He turned, struck the ball low but Ederson saved.

Palace were closing down well with Lewington setting the press from the touchline. “Next ball’s ours,” he shouted as City centre-back Nathan Ake debated a forward pass. “That’s OK,” he continued as Ake went sideways. As soon as the ball went forward, they were called into action. And for a while longer than many expected, especially as Palace are safe in mid-table, City were stifled. It was the longest they have had to wait in any Premier League game this season for a shot on target until Aguero’s stunning intervention.

Suddenly, the floodgates opened. Torres scored and several more could have followed. Sterling hit the post, Joao Cancelo curled a shot just over, Aguero had another effort beaten away by Vicente Guaita. City had 12 shots in the second period, more than in any other Premier League away game this season, all with Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan rested as unused substitutes.

Guardiola greeted the second goal with arms aloft, holding a pose from which all was missing was the Premier League trophy. It won’t be long now. “We can start to put [the champagne] in the fridge,” he told BT Sport. “We can start to predict our future [in the Premier League]. I will check on the Liverpool game. It’s in our hands and now we will give everything to beat PSG.”

Eleven consecutive away wins across all competitions, secured with an aggregate score of 28-4, equals their own English top-flight record, City have now scored 700 goals in all competitions under Guardiola — 157 more than anyone since he took charge in 2016 — and two of South America’s brightest prospects, Kayky and Dario Sarmiento, are already signed for next season.

Foo Fighters’ “All My Life” rang out over the stadium PA system as the City players strode off at full-time, a song in which Dave Grohl chants: “Done, done and I’m on to the next one.” Quite.

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