Manchester City have waited a long time for a Premier League table with this morning’s complexion. It was November 2012 when they last stood at the summit, relinquishing that position within a week, though the manner of this victory suggested this squad are made of sterner stuff.
Supremacy may be brief again - Arsenal will regain it with a win at Newcastle United today – but Manuel Pellegrini now knows his side can win by means other than the liquid football they have displayed against Liverpool and Arsenal in the past few weeks. That matters. Winning a title entails handling all types of terrain.
The City manager was deeply and ungenerously dismissive of the way Crystal Palace played anti-football, as he characterised it, . “One team wanted to play for 90 minutes and one wanted to play in their own goal,” he said. “It is difficult when one team wants to play and the other doesn’t.” His opposite number Tony Pulis pointed out, not unreasonably, that Pellegrini’s analysis omitted the fact that Joe Hart was named stadium man of the match after three fines saves, one of which was excellent. “Was that the team that cost £350m? I don’t talk about other teams,” Pulis said. Other clubs may seek the Palace way of putting out the Etihad fire, having seen these results. It was the first time this season that City have been limited to a single goal at their stadium.
For a time, it was hard to tell whether the Palace fans who expressed mock delirium when their team won so much as a corner, deep in the first half, really wanted this to be the price of playing Premier League football. They expressed a similar sentiment when the visitors reached the interval goalless, with Cameron Jerome’s venture into the home box on the half hour an exceptional event. It didn’t help the spectacle that Jerome left the field with a damaged ankle after that adventure, when his boot went into Joe Hart’s face – leaving the goalkeeper with a badly cut left eye, which was glued on the pitch and required six stitches. It didn’t help City that Edin Dzeko’s touch was so poor.
Pellegrini’s players had some first half moments: Fernandinho’s two volleys - one over, one blocked – and his header from a Milner cross which Julian Speroni athletically touched over. But Pulis’ players carried out his creed indefatigably. They dropped deep, harried and repelled David Silva as he buzzed around the edge of the area, looking to break the defensive line. Mile Jedinak and Barry Bannan - the little and large of Palace’s midfield - and Jonathan Parr were three of many deserving mention as Pulis, fielding the same XI that beat Aston Villa on Boxing Day, made a mockery of Pellegrini’s complaints about Christmas fixture congestion.
The City manager’s conviction that he could afford to rest three of his most dangerous players – Samir Nasri, Yaya Toure and Alvaro Negredo – was looking deeply unfounded after the interval, from which Palace emerged with resolve to begin breaking out from their serried ranks. The game was only 55 minutes old when Pellegrini sent on the cavalry – Negredo and Nasri – but as the hour came and went, Palace actually looked the more likely side to score. Hart palmed away the shot Jason Puncheon unravelled after easing past the ineffective Javi Garcia, then touched over Jedinak’s shot from the edge of the box. But it was then that City demonstrated the slim margins for error when they are in business. Attempting to clear his lines Damien Delaney headed straight to Jesus Navas, who set up Dzeko to atone for a poor afternoon by firing into the top right hand corner of the net.
Palace continued to threaten – Joel Ward brought Hart’s most sublime stop before missing a header which Pulis was still ruing when he arrived for his press conference – in a way which suggested that this recovery act is well under way. “What we need is to turn the 1-0 defeats into victories,” said Pulis, edgy and refusing to take a seat, as always. “We are in the group now which we weren’t when we came. It gives us a chance and that’s all we can ask for.”
Manchester City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Boyota (Negredo, 55), Kompany, Nastasic Clichy; Garcia, Fernandinho (Nasri, 55); Navas, Silva, Milner (Kolarov, 75); Dzeko
Crystal Palace (4-5-1): Speroni; Mariappa, Gabbidon, Delaney, Parr; Puncheon, Ward, Jedinak, Bannan (Gayle, 81), Bolasie (Williams, 76); Jerome (Chamakh, 35).
Referee: Andre Marriner.
Man of the match: Silva (Manchester City)
Match rating: 6/10