Keegan's midfield cavaliers keep Goater well-fed

Manchester City 4 Gillingham 1
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The Independent Football

It is invidious to make comparisons but here goes any way. Manchester City are more pleasing to the eye than Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United team who gained promotion to the top division in the Nineties.

Whether they will match the Magpies, who flowered with the acquisition of David Ginola et al into a team of Tyneside folklore, is anyone's guess, but if City fail to go up into the Premiership this season they are going to do so spectacularly.

It was only a modest and hard-up Gillingham that they ripped to pieces yesterday but they produced football of such wit and invention that even Old Trafford would have been impressed.

At the heart of the massacre was the combination of an Israeli and an Algerian, Eyal Berkovic and Ali Benarbia, whose imaginative passing was way beyond the scope of Gillingham, who would have watched in admiration had they been able to get close enough.

They provided the ammunition, Shaun Goater the firing mechanism. His hat-trick took him to 20 goals for the season, a tally of astonishing productivity from 19 games. City's other goal came from Darren Huckerby whose own little contribution now runs to 10 goals from nine starts.

"Premiership teams would have struggled against us the way we played in the first half," Keegan said. "With Ali and Eyal in there we are looking to do different things and the signs are that things could get even better."

Even Keegan has doubted his own tactical capabilities, but no-one could dispute his commitment to the cavalier cause. At a time when managers are changed like socks, you would have expected some introspection but not from the erstwhile Geordie messiah. Ride to the sound of the guns? He would be there waiting for you.

City's defence has leaked like a government department at times but Keegan refuses to be cowed and he sent out a team yesterday that could have swashbuckled with Errol Flynn. A central midfield of Benarbia and Berkovic will give you endless attacking opportunities but not many tackles and if it resonated of "you score three, we'll score four" no-one could fault City's commitment to meeting their share.

Richard Dunne and Huckerby had already tested Vince Bartram's reflexes when Huckerby split the visitors' defence with a quickfire one-two with Goater after 18 minutes. This time the Gillingham goalkeeper could only block Huckerby's shot and he scarcely deserved to see the ball fly past him as Goater volleyed in the rebound.

Two minutes later it was 2-0, and again the goal owed much to Goater's reactive brain. A cross from Danny Tiatto was misdirected by the Bermudan striker but it cannoned off Guy Butters and was thrashed in from close range.

City fizzed with invention, Gillingham hoped to cope but it was already a question of damage limitation that became even more imperative when Goater turned creator after 35 minutes, pulling the ball back to Huckerby, who side-footed past Bartram.

The pressure was unrelenting and was rewarded after 53 minutes when Berkovic found the gaps inside the Gillingham full-backs for the umpteenth time of the afternoon. Huckerby sped into the hole, swerved round Bartram and appeared to be heading back into trouble when Goater applied the finishing touch.

Gillingham got a measure of satisfaction from a difficult afternoon when Marlon King beat Nicky Weaver with a low shot, but it was a gesture rather than a threat. "City were tremendous," Richard Hill, the visitors' assistant manager, said. "I would have loved to have been a neutral today because we caught them on a very, very good day."