Crystal Palace’s record at Manchester City is terrible: they have lost every time they have played at the Etihad and went down 5-1 in the Capital One Cup in October. They were not as terrible here as the result suggests, though City still felt comfortable enough to begin with Yaya Touré and Raheem Sterling on the bench and were not proved wrong.
It was a strange afternoon in some respects, but the result was never in doubt. After being held goalless by Everton in midweek, City are now back on level points with Arsenal, while a second defeat in five days put Palace’s top-six hopes into perspective, especially as Alan Pardew’s side have now gone five league games without scoring a goal.
“That was not a bad performance from us, but the goals changed the complexion of the game,” the Palace manager said, sounding a little trite but actually making sense. As Manuel Pellegrini said, City scoring relatively early was the key. “As soon as we go in front we know we will get more space,” the City manager said. “And with space we are dangerous.”
It could so easily have been Palace in front in less than two minutes, for two contrasting examples of goalkeeping defined the opening half-hour. Joe Hart was in action almost as soon as the game got under way, as the City defence did one of its famous Red Sea partings to allow Damien Delaney a free header from the six-yard line from Connor Wickham’s cross. Delaney was still upfield following an early corner and could not have asked for a better opportunity. A striker might have made more of the chance but though the Palace captain kept his effort on target Hart reacted quickly to scoop the ball clear.
Twenty minutes on and Wayne Hennessey did not react quickly enough when Fabian Delph sent in a shot from 25 yards to put City in front. It was a well-struck drive, in all fairness, but it did not seem to take a deflection on the way through and having got down to his left to reach the ball the goalkeeper ought to have got a stronger hand to it.
Hennessey had the shot covered but could not keep it out. While the defence might have spotted the danger a little sooner and done more to close down Delph, being beaten at a comfortable height from so far out has to go down as a goalkeeping error.
At least Hennessey could not be blamed when City extended their lead five minutes before the interval. Already moving across goal to cover Sergio Agüero’s shot, the keeper was left wrongfooted when Scott Dann got a head to the ball to divert it into his top-right corner. Agüero will probably claim the goal given that his initial attempt looked as though it was on target, though Hennessey might have been able to save that. He had no chance once Dann intervened.
Agüero had been the focus of most of City’s attacking play, sending a shot just too high on the stroke of the interval and at one point managing to appeal for a penalty and hook the ball just wide of the Palace goal at the same time.
The visitors could not keep up their early threat and spent most of the first half on the back foot. The only time Hart was remotely worried was when he rather dozily allowed James McArthur get in the way of an attempted clearance.
City lost Aleksandar Kolarov to a calf injury at the start of the second half and beefed up their attacking options with Touré a few minutes later.
There seemed no real need to – the game appeared as good as won – but Touré was involved when City scored their fourth, helping the ball out to Kevin De Bruyne on the right for a cross that left Agüero the simplest of tap-ins from six yards. Agüero and David Silva had begun the move on the left and half a dozen passes later there was too little of the defence left standing to prevent City’s leading scorer claiming his second of the afternoon.
Agüero could have had his hat-trick six minutes from time but unselfishly set up Silva instead. Once again there was nothing left of the defence to beat once De Bruyne had won the ball on halfway to send Agüero on a 40-yard sprint. Joel Ward manfully tried to keep up but so did Silva and once Agüero squared the ball a fourth goal was a formality.
“We weren’t bad but City were clinical. Every shot they had went in,” Pardew said ruefully.