x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Manchester City made to sweat before going top

Provisionally in first place ahead of Sunday's matches

Edin Dzeko, No 10, celebrates with his Manchester City' teammates after breaking the deadlock in his team's 1-0 defeat of Crystal Palace on Saturday. Andrew Yates / AFP
Edin Dzeko, No 10, celebrates with his Manchester City' teammates after breaking the deadlock in his team's 1-0 defeat of Crystal Palace on Saturday. Andrew Yates / AFP

MANCHESTER // This was a novel scoreline for Manchester City. There is a theory that title challenges are built on 1-0 wins. Not this one.

Manuel Pellegrini’s team reached the half-way point of the season before triumphing thanks to a solitary goal. Now they have as many 1-0 victories as 7-0, 6-0 and 6-3 triumphs.

“It is important to know how to win 1-0,” Pellegrini said after Saturday’s 1-0 defeat of Crystal Palace, the most mundane game at the Etihad Stadium this season.

After the goal feasts came a comparative famine, ended by Edin Dzeko to alleviate the growing frustration among the City support. They are not accustomed to finding opponents this difficult to break down.

The narrow margin was a sign that Pellegrini’s buccaneers, lacking several of their premier players, were below their best, but it is also an indication of the revival in Crystal Palace’s fortunes. A shambles at the start of the season, they are a team transformed. They were resolute in a rearguard action.

“Just one team wanted to play and the other wanted to stay in their own goal,” Pellegrini said.

Tony Pulis had a swift retort. “Did they give Joe Hart man of the match?” the Palace manager asked.

The sponsors did, indeed, and, while Palace were camped on the edge of their own box and while City dominated possession, the relegation-threatened team posed a threat on their sporadic attacks and the goalkeeper was required to excel.

Had Hart not saved spectacularly from Jason Puncheon and Mile Jedinak at 0-0, then this might have been one of the shocks of the season. Having been recalled, he is being rehabilitated.

“He is playing at his normal performance as the good goalkeeper he is,” Pellegrini said.

What was distinctly abnormal was the sight of Hart’s face, complete with a black eye, after he dived bravely at the feet of Cameron Jerome. The Palace striker came off worse from the collision and had to be substituted, though Hart did receive five stitches for his trouble.

“He went for the ball and he caught Joe Hart,” said Pellegrini, unworried by his goalkeeper’s new look. “It was not a serious problem.”

Indeed, City’s plight seemed more serious when 65 minutes had elapsed without a goal. Pellegrini had already sent for Samir Nasri and Alvaro Negredo, who he had initially rested, and was about to bring on Yaya Toure.

Then Dzeko converted expertly after a neat pass from Jesus Navas, who is in a rich vein of form, turning a forgettable game into a landmark occasion for him. It was his 50th City goal, and even if the understudy retains his capacity to irritate with his inconsistency, he has a habit of delivering crucial strikes. This was another.

“It was a hard game, maybe the toughest at this stadium in the Premier League this season,” Dzeko said.

The fixture list, necessitating six changes in the starting 11, compounded City’s difficulties.

“It is impossible to play 44 hours after the tough game we played against Liverpool,” Pellegrini said. “Our team was not fresh enough to make all the movements you have to do when you have 10 players inside their own box.”

They had shots aplenty, but many were from long range. Fernandinho, who volleyed over and had a header tipped away by Julian Speroni, came closer than most, but Palace formed an unlikely band with Bayern Munich and Hull – the only other teams to stop City scoring in the first half at home this season. Yet they persevered and got a reward as they now top the table.

“We are in the position we wanted to be in,” Pellegrini said. “Maybe eight games ago, nobody believed we could [make up] six points to Arsenal. We must continue this way.”