Manchester City vs. Crystal Palace: 6 Things We Learned
Boss Manuel Pellegrini rested the likes of Alvaro Negredo, Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri for City's second game inside three days, and ultimately, it was one of his changes, Edin Dzeko, who struck the winner midway through the first half following a Jesus Navas cross.
It had been a frustrating afternoon for Dzeko and his teammates up until then, but ultimately, they were grateful to goalkeeper Joe Hart for making fine saves on Jason Puncheon, Mile Jedinak and Joel Ward.
It is to Palace's eternal credit that they kept going and refused to be on the end of the kind of hammering that many had predicted, with boss Tony Pulis doubtless left delighted by the effort and commitment shown by his side.
City took the points, though, and as they go two points clear at the top of the table, they'll be eyeing a golden year in 2014.
Here are six lessons learned from the Etihad:
Of all the heroes that City would have been expecting to have in this game, Joe Hart would have been near the bottom of the list.
That isn't anything to do with the form of the England goalkeeper since he returned at the expense of Costel Pantilimon for the matches against Fulham, Liverpool and then again here, but more that City, despite the changes, were expected to steamroll yet another opponent at home.
Such an emphatic display never materialised, though, and the hosts were grateful to the athleticism of their goalkeeper when he stretched to keep out long-range efforts from Puncheon, Jedinak and Ward in the second half.
Playing with a badly cut eye following a collision with Cameron Jerome in the first half, Hart's heroics were crucial, as City made heavy weather of their win.
Edin Dzeko Takes His Chance, Eventually
With Sergio Aguero still sitting alongside Stevan Jovetic on the treatment table and Alvaro Negredo afforded a rest by Manuel Pellegrini, Edin Dzeko would have viewed this as the perfect opportunity for him to stake a claim to be involved in the first-team picture more often.
For a frustrating first 66 minutes, however, he didn't take that chance.
A first half full of no little effort ultimately boiled down to frustration when he failed to link up well with the likes of David Silva, Jesus Navas and James Milner, and Dzeko must have thought that this wasn't going to be his day long before Navas picked him out for the calm finish that won the game midway through the second half.
The Bosnian's City career has been full of chances to impress such as this one, but despite notching his 50th Premier League goal here, it would be a surprise if Negredo wasn't back in from to start at Swansea on New Year's Day.
Palace Aren't the Relegation Certainties They Once Were
Whatever your opinion of Tony Pulis, it is impossible to disagree that he's certainly improved Crystal Palace's solidity since replacing Ian Holloway at Selhurst Park.
Earlier in the season, there would have been none of the determination and defensive steeliness that we saw from Palace in the opening hour and more of this game, and given what has gone on before at the Etihad this season, keeping the hosts at bay for so long was quite some achievement.
In fact, it could be argued that this was Palace's best performance of the season, even in defeat, as although they went about their business in an almost complete opposite manner to Liverpool on their visit to Manchester on Boxing Day, they were no less impressive in their own way.
Relegation is far from the certainty that many believed it was just a few weeks ago.
City's Squad Might Not Be Strong Enough to Last the Pace
Admittedly, they were faced with the extreme situation of playing two games in three days whilst dealing with injuries to some of their high-profile players, but City's squad didn't look too impressive here, as they were stretched to the limit.
Pellegrini handed starts to the likes of Dedryck Boyata and Javi Garcia as more experienced campaigners such as Pablo Zabaleta and Yaya Toure missed out, but the failure for City to click in front of what was a well-drilled and organised outfit might just make the Chilean boss reconsider a few January targets.
One plus point for the boss was seeing Matija Nastasic back in action after his battle with injury this season, and the clean sheet that followed suit would indicate that this was a successful return.
However, the displays of some of his fringe players might give the boss more questions than answers heading into a New Year that promises so much.
Promise for Palace
Further to that assertion that Palace have certainly become stronger, the south Londoners can take heart from a January fixture list that sees them face three winnable looking home games against Norwich, Stoke and Hull.
Fulham's emphatic 6-0 defeat at the KC Stadium on Saturday afternoon both kept Pulis' men out of the relegation zone and ensured that their goal difference is vastly superior to their London rivals, and with this fixture as a reference, the Eagles could yet soar.
Arguably, only Liverpool have caused City the kind of problems that they experienced here, and as long as Cameron Jerome's injury isn't too severe, then Palace can spring into that Norwich clash with great heart.
That City won't be as tough to break down as this City were.
City Go Top, and Will Be in the Mood to Stay There
For all the criticism over the failure to win more emphatically, City went two points clear at the top of the table with this victory and could well stay there.
Arsenal face a tricky fixture at Newcastle on Sunday, and with one or both of Chelsea and Liverpool guaranteed to drop points when the pair meet at Stamford Bridge on the same day, then this could end up being seen as a pivotal weekend in the title race.
Pellegrini is certain to recall some of the star names that were missing here for the Swansea trip on New Year's Day, and at the halfway point of the campaign there will be very few people wishing to bet against his team emerging as champions.
If anything, wins like this only emphasise that.
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