THE NEW season is less than a month old and already Maine Road's optimistic vision of Manchester City waltzing through the Second Division is beginning to fade. They may go up, and with their resources they ought to, but on the evidence of last night it is going to be a test of nerve rather than a lap of honour among the lower orders.
Shaun Goater claimed two goals and Paul Dickov one for City to secure their second League success, but the scoreline disguised a night of creeping anxiety. A better team than Walsall, who scored through Andy Rammell when it was too late to capitalise on fraying composure, would have embarrassed their supposed betters.
The spell after half time when City could barely string two passes together was particularly worrying, but at least the manager, Joe Royle, who had described their start to the season as "quiet", is now in danger of being asked to turn the volume down. With eight points they are in touching distance of the leading teams.
According to reports, City had squandered liberally in their last home game, a 0-0 draw against Wrexham, and they began as if they were reading from the same script. Dickov was halted by James Walker's charge after a minute; Goater headed weakly after seven; Lee Bradbury pulled a shot wide after 21: it was not so much hit and miss as miss, miss and miss again.
It was just becoming touch and go whether the home supporters will be dealing with more waste than the local rubbish collectors when City confounded everyone by adjusting their sights to the intended targets. Walsall appeared to be dealing with the predominate tactic of the high ball into the box when Nick Fenton unleashed a cross of superior quality after 29 minutes and Goater applied the finish with a thumping header.
City began the second period wretchedly. Even the hitherto barren Walsall were able to thrive and twice Tony Vaughan had to clear after Jason Brissett had flicked on near-post corners.
Bradbury, City's record buy at pounds 3.5m, was profligate in chief and withdrawn after 54 minutes, allowing his replacement, Daniel Allsopp, a pounds 10,000 buy from Australian junior football , to make a decisive contribution.
His start, blazing over from six-yards, was not promising but after 71 minutes he laid Walsall's left flank to waste with a run that threatened to go nowhere but ended with a pass to Goater, who tapped in at the far post.
City's third goal, four minutes later, was similar. Allsopp raced down the right and when Goater went for, and missed, the cross, Dickov was behind him to relive the home anxieties.
Manchester City (3-4-1-2): Weaver; Fenton, Wiekens, Vaughan; Edghill, Pollock, Mason, Tiatto; Goater; Dickov (Brown, 84), Bradbury (Allsopp, 54). Substitute not used: Jobson.
Walsall (4-4-2): Walker; Marsh (Watson, 79), Green, Viveash, Pointon; Wrack, Keates, Porter, Ricketts; Rammell, Brissett. Substitutes not used: Dyer, Evans.
Referee: D Laws (Whitley Bay).
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