Manchester City 3 Swansea City 0: It is all about the games which come next, for Manchester City.
The manager, Manuel Pellegrini, did little to disguise his belief that the side’s away record has been over-analysed – “our much talked-about away-form” was how he described it in his programme notes – and if the side can find this same formula at West Bromwich Albion and Southampton in the next six days, then Arsenal may have reason to arrive here with a shudder, 11 days from now. Top by Christmas?
Quite possibly, Pellegrini declared on Sunday night.
The Hampshire south coast was the scene of a desperate 3-1 defeat in February and the Hawthorns will not be elementary, on Wednesday, for a side who have already lost away four times this season.
But City’s performances here – 44 goals here in all competitions, 25 in the last five and the last remaining 100 per cent home record in the four top divisions – make the notion of them failing to repair their away form look increasingly far-fetched.
Those Pellegrini notes also revealed that he wants to “arrive at the New Year in first place and if that is not possible, then no more than three points from the number one position.” Invited to expand last night, he said: “I can answer your question after this week has finished. I have a lot of trust in this team. We have six games in December. We hope we can do it.”
At home, his team are a powerhouse; surging forward with strength, pace and a midfield force which Manchester United and Liverpool palpably lack. They are also in possession of the strikers Arsenal lack, including the forward with the best strike rate in the Champions League. He is Alvaro Negredo, released by Pellegrini at Real Madrid but who had threatened Swansea’s rearguard twice – supplying and shooting – before his near inevitable eighth-minute goal. It was his 20th in 13 games; a free kick which he won by drawing a foul from José Canas and promptly bent around Gerhard Tremmel.
More goals could have flowed. Martin Demichelis rose to power Samir Nasri’s header on to the bar. Sergio Aguero took down a lofted 40-yard pass from Yaya Touré, rounded Ashley Williams and Tremmel and clipped the side netting when the angle had narrowed to 10 degrees or so. And beyond the opportunities there was the characteristic quality of this City side to summon levels of effort lost amid the players’ deepening alienation from Roberto Mancini, last season. This was arguably Nasri’s best display in a City shirt; one written through with energy.
“He is playing free and happy. He feels he is again an important player and the way the team is playing helps,” said Pellegrini.
Costel Pantilimon coincidentally revealed another example of Mancini’s breathtaking man-management strategies yesterday – disclosing how the Italian had promised on the eve of last season’s FA Cup final that the Romanian would play, but then deputing the goalkeeping coach on match day morning to say there had been a change of plan.
The goalkeeper’s one firm stop when required here offered no hope for Joe Hart – the better goalkeeper whose re-selection Pellegrini currently still cannot justify.
Pellegrini’s only criticism of his team was their impetuousness after going ahead, though Swansea certainly made a contribution, academic though that proved to be, and never looked destined to unravel as Tottenham Hotspur had, seven days earlier.
Their will to pass out of defence was unstinting, while City sat deep and allowed them space – an unusual experience for a team whose passing capabilities are so well known. Jonjo Shelvey’s performance asked some searching questions of Liverpool’s decision to take the £6m being offered and sell him this summer. The afternoon’s events at Hill demonstrated that Liverpool could have used him.
But when the gulf in class, man-for-man, is as substantial as this, opportunities must be seized. After Jonathan de Guzman, back-to-goal, had nutmegged Demichelis, swivelled around him and advanced to the six-yard box just before half-time, he levered a shot high over the bar as he stared into the whites of the goalkeeper’s eyes. In that moment, you felt that the afternoon had gone. “The difference between a good player and a top, top player is not very much but it’s there in the small details: a touch there, a good run there,” Laudrup later reflected. “Our players are good players but today we played against top, top players. You have to score on the few chances you do get. When you play here, you don’t get many chances.”
The hour’s wait for the inevitable second goal was well worth it. Touré powered into the last third of the field in that way which makes possession of the ball his inalienable right, flashed his eyes towards Aguero but slipped a reverse pass instead to Nasri, who slithered past de Guzman and Ashley Williams to drive his shot home.
By the time Nasri slid in the third on 76 minutes, Swansea’s legs were beginning to wear. There was consequently an empty space where defenders should have been as the Frenchman extended his left foot to bury the low cross that Pablo Zabaleta was free to level, after racing on to substitute James Milner’s pass. “At home, I think they’re the best team in the league,” Laudrup said of his opponents. “It all depends what they do away from home.” Which pretty much sums it up, really.
Manchester City (4-4-2) Pantilimon 6; Zabaleta 7, Demichelis 6, Lescott 6, Clichy 6; Navas 6 (Kolarov 76), Toure 8, Fernandinho 7, Nasri 9; Aguero 8 (Dzeko 79), Negredo 8 (Milner, 63). Substitutes: Hart, Richards, Kolarov, Garcia, Rodwell, Milner, Dzeko
Swansea City (4-1-4-1) Tremmel 6; Tiendalli 6, Chico 5, Williams 7, Davies 7; Canas 5; Pozuelo 7 (Dyer 67 6), de Guzman 6, Shelvey 8, Hernandez 6 (Routledge 62 6); Vazquez 6. Substitutes: Vorm, Routledge, Taylor, Lamah, Donnelly, Amat
Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne and Wear)
Star man: Nasri
Match rating: 8