The happy glow lasted only two minutes for Manchester City – a club never known for doing things the easy way. No sooner had they set off about their business in the knowledge that Chelsea had been beaten than Sergio Aguero was lying on the turf, grimacing in agony.
They will know more about the extent of his knee ligament damage on Sunday, though none of the champions’ anxiety can dispel the satisfaction of a day which revealed that this campaign is not going to be a one-horse race. Everton were comfortably, if not emphatically, put aside in a performance of workmanship, if not wizardry, which reduced the gap on the leaders to three points – it was nine points last weekend.
Roberto Martinez’s side, with one League win in six, have lost the fluidity which they had swapped their muscularity for. They will never have had a better chance to beat City than on an evening when Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kompany were missing.
Pellegrini insisted in his programme notes that “this team is not just about Sergio”, observing that the midweek rout of Sunderland was a result of City’s “excellent players all over the pitch”. He didn’t anticipate that assertion being tested quite so soon.
The innocuous way in which Aguero injured himself – stretching for a ball having bounced out of a challenge from Muhamed Besic - compounded the blow. He was in tears of pain as he hobbled from the pitch. Precisely how City’s most precious possession – the one on whom this title challenge will hinge – could have been allowed to hobble halfway around the perimeter of the pitch without so much as a shoulder of support, let alone a stretcher, was just unfathomable.
“Big problem,” Pellegrini reflected – and it all adds up to a formidable list of doubts for the crucial Champions League match in Rome on Wednesday: Aguero and Silva almost certainly missing, Kompany a severe doubt, Stevan Jovetic and Fernandinho less than certain to play and Yaya Touré suspended.
Edin Dzeko’s frailty – he had not played since early November because of a calf injury – forced Pellegrini to send on the Spanish 18-year-old Jose Pozo, signed from Real Madrid’s academy two years ago, in place of Aguero until Dzeko, capable of half an hour’s exposure, could replace him. No hearts will be bleeding for a club of City’s wealth but titles are built on the quality of workmanship they showed in a game they deserved to win.
The penalty which put them ahead was wrapped in good fortune. Phil Jagielka did no more than block James Milner’s advance into the area. “It’s not a penalty in a million years,” Martinez justifiably reflected. “Jagielka cannot disappear. It’s a natural action to get to the ball. Football is a contact sport, if you look at the reaction of James he’s trying to get up and fight for the ball.”
Eliaquim Mangala also put his studs into the back of Samuel Eto’o as they went up together for a Milner corner: a horrible challenge for which the Frenchman – who still seems like an accident waiting to happen – could have walked, had the referee actually seen this.
Fernando put his own studs into the side of Gareth Barry’s face, too. Players have been dismissed for that as well, though the Brazilian’s challenge seemed less horrific and his yellow card was appropriate.
None of that should disguise what City delivered, though. Aguero will carry the headlines, but it was Milner who outperformed all the rest once again.
He enabled Gaël Clichy to quell any threat that Martinez might have hoped from in sending Seamus Coleman into his advanced role, and the left-back penetrated more than any City player too.
Maybe Milner and Barry would have laughed about the latter’s clumsy lunge at him on the left touchline which earned him a booking. Milner ran away from his old friend, making nothing of it. Barry’s struggles with injury made it look as if the years were catching up with him, but not Milner.
It was he who collected Barry’s loose pass and exchanged passes with Touré to manufacture the driving run which brought the penalty. He made Tony Hibbert look like a very ordinary defender too, and Pozo ought to have capitalised when Milner drove 15 yards into the left-hand side of Everton’s area and despatched a low, left-footed cross. The young striker struck it first time at Tim Howard’s outstretched leg.
Everton missed the presence of James McCarthy in their ranks because Barry could not handle the pace that his old club unleashed. Martinez’s players were untidy in possession, too – Barry and Besic both surrendering it to show that the rhythm of Martinez’s debut season at Everton was missing again.
A beautiful flick by Eto’o with his outstep, teeing up a ball delivered by Barry for a Romelu Lukaku strike, sent Joe Hart diving to his left to make a save 10 minutes from time.
But City were home. Now for thoughts of Aguero, scans, recovery schedules and all the usual anxiety.
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