x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Manchester City 3 Sunderland 0

At a remarkable 11th attempt, it was a first clean sheet from a defence that became notorious for its stinginess last year.

Sergio Aguero's introduction for Manchester City coincided with the champions' best passage of play against Sunderland. Jon Super / AP Photo
Sergio Aguero's introduction for Manchester City coincided with the champions' best passage of play against Sunderland. Jon Super / AP Photo

There are moments when a football manager needs most is a regulation victory. This was Roberto Mancini's moment to sigh with relief and hope that his team had recovered the conviction of champions.

A 3-0 home victory was a result from last season; a result from the 19 months of Premier League football in which Manchester City have dropped just four points on home soil.

At a remarkable 11th attempt, it was a first clean sheet from a defence that became notorious for its stinginess last year. (Never before have champions taken so many games to shut an opponent out.)

And it came at the end of a week in which Mancini's men were overwhelmed by Borussia Dortmund in all but final score in the second game of a Champions League campaign that already looks like following the manager's standard pattern on Europe's most elevated stage.

In the background are the typical Mancini murmurings. Some of his players dislike his distant attitude, and a tendency to play favourites in team selection.

One of his discarded England internationals, Adam Johnson, warned others before kick off that "it is excellent when a club like City come for you and you're going to play for the champions. But you don't actually play for the champions".

There have been queries over Mancini's decision to experiment with a three-man backline sparsely used outside his native Italy. And he has complained about transfer policy, constructing a get-out for any ultimate underperformance in his argument that summer recruits were purchased too late to properly integrate.

During the final 35 minutes against Sunderland - once a sullen Mario Balotelli had marched down the tunnel after being replaced by Sergio Aguero - such concerns melted into a comforting score line. Consistently impressive when driving forward, Aleksandar Kolarov exploited an undisciplined hole on the right side of the visiting defence to tee up the Argentine substitute. Finally City could play like title holders.

Yet for too long before opponents who were some distance off their early-season form still looked capable of stealing an equaliser through Steven Fletcher or Stephan Sessegnon.

"Every game is difficult in this moment," said Mancini. "I am happy because we got a clean sheet, scored three but also because of our performance."

For a team who had not fallen behind in all six of their Premier League fixtures this season, Sunderland conceded a fifth-minute opener that was profligate in the extreme. Carlos Tevez oft perplexes defenders when he is running with the ball, but Carlos Cuellar is experienced enough not to fly legs-forward into a striker in no position to shoot while two of his own teammates are offering cover.

The centre-back's lunge drew a yellow card and free kick two yards from the right-hand corner of Sunderland's penalty area. For some referees in some matches its recklessness would have brought red. The punishment Kolarov added was beautiful to behold. From a position where a right-footed strike was the percentage approach, the left-back curled over the wall and in with his stronger foot. "I knew it," said Kolarov. "I knew I was going to score the goal from there."

Before the half was out Martin O'Neill was swapping his central defenders to keep Cuellar away from further trouble. Eventually it found his team again, as Kolarov swept a vicious cross into Aguero, who finished with a moment of understated control.

The third also came down Sunderland's right flank. Attempting to defend it, Craig Gardner was belatedly booked for an unnecessary trip on Kolarov, who left a still tighter angled free kick to James Milner. The midfielder's shot lifted over the wall, was helped on by Gardner's forehead, and streamed past goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.

The end of City's stutters? We will see.

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