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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Free-scoring Manchester City, with Kevin de Bruyne pulling the strings, look unstoppable

Belgian was withdrawn just past the hour to a rapturous reception as City put seven past Stoke City

Manchester City's Kevin de Bruyne, left, was instrumental in his side's 7-2 win over Stoke City. Andrew Yates / Reuters
Manchester City's Kevin de Bruyne, left, was instrumental in his side's 7-2 win over Stoke City. Andrew Yates / Reuters

Inseparable through the season’s first seven matches, Manchester City wrestled free finally from Manchester United at the Premier League summit.

Where United were dogged and determined away to Liverpool in Saturday’s early kick off, City were inspired and incisive a little later at home to Stoke City. For the most part, they were simply irresistible. They won 7-2.

Pep Guardiola's men scored three times in 10 first-half minutes. They required three minutes less to repeat the feat after the break. In between, Stoke struck twice to reduce the deficit to one, but in reality the teams were always a chasm apart.

Again, Kevin de Bruyne served as conductor to a side in perfect concert. He assisted both Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane. With Napoli in the Uefa Champions League to come on Tuesday, he was withdrawn not long after the hour. By that stage, City had hit Stoke for six. Revelling once more as chief architect, De Bruyne was given a standing ovation.

Stoke would have been glad to see the back of him. In teeing up two of his teammates, De Bruyne took his tally of assists to 68 since the 2012/13 season. Of Europe’s top five leagues, only Lionel Messi had as many.

Perhaps none were as sumptuous as the Belgian's second. With his side already 5-2 to the good, the City midfielder arched a pass around Stoke's defence and into Sane’s path. The German rammed home through Jack Butland’s legs.

Before that, Jesus had scored twice, Raheem Sterling notched to continue his fine run and David Silva kept his cool when losing his balance to beat Butland. Guardiola applauded his players. Mark Hughes, back at the club he once managed, probably craved full time.

Fleetingly, his Stoke made a fist of things. They scored either side of the interval, once through Mame Biram Diouf and then when his off-target header was diverted into the City goal by Kyle Walker.

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Yet the hosts merely put their foot down again. Jesus struck his second, a 13th Premier League goal for the club in 14 starts. Leading the line in Sergio Aguero’s absence, the Brazilian made sure the Argentine was not missed. He has excelled since arriving in England 14 months ago. He has averaged a league goal every 87.1 minutes.

After that, Fernandinho scored the game’s peach, a rasping drive from range that thudded the underside of the Stoke crossbar. Then Sane finished off De Bruyne’s incredible assist. Finally, Bernardo Silva poked home for his first in City’s colours.

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The Portuguese was set up by Sterling, who concluded the match with a goal and two assists, too. Apparently offered as a makeweight in a late bid for Alexis Sanchez, the winger is making a weighty case for why he was right to stay. He has six goals in his past six league appearances. He had five in his previous 31.

City have 29 in eight. It makes them the first top-flight team to open a season as such in 123 years. More recently, they have five-plus goals in their past three Premier League home matches.

Almost a quarter of the way through the campaign, City are perched proudly at the top. They are both ruthless and resolute, boasting the division’s best attack and its second-best defence.

With Pep’s players in place, they seem in perfect synch. The Spaniard plumped for the same line-up against Stoke that began the match two weeks ago at Chelsea. A tinkerer and a tactician, it was only the second time at City that Guardiola has named an unchanged side.

They repaid him with a performance of genuine class. Superb in that 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge, City were scintillating when back on home soil. It was another statement of title-winning intent.

Soon to be separated from their cross-town rivals at the close of the weekend's action at last, they suggested they will be difficult to rein back in.