Manchester City bounced back from a rough pair of Premier League matches with a solid 3-1 home win over West Bromwich Albion. Goals from Pablo Zabaleta and Sergio Aguero in the first 10 minutes set the tone before Graham Dorrans' sublime counter-attacking goal was cancelled out by a Martin Demichelis tap-in.
The scoreline would seem to indicate that the Citizens bossed affairs, and on the surface they did. They held 69 percent of the possession and got off 19 shots to West Brom's 10. But the game could very easily have swung either way at certain points, and City looked vulnerable and disinterested at times.
City lined up about how we might have expected them to, with Javi Garcia trying to plug the Yaya Toure-sized hole in midfield and Aguero playing just off Edin Dzeko. Gael Clichy got the nod over Aleks Kolarov at left-back while Martin Demichelis partnered Vincent Kompany in the middle of the back four.
West Brom's only real divergence from their norm was Craig Dawson at centre-back, a necessary change due to the injury to the ever-reliable Gareth McAuley. Matej Vydra did take Victor Anichebe's place at the top of Pepe Mel's 4-2-3-1, replacing the Baggies' lone scorer from the reverse at the Hawthorns.
City signaled intent early on and had a goal inside three minutes. A nice throw-in routine gave Samir Nasri room to cross from wide right, and a poor clearing header from Liam Ridgewell hit Aguero in the chest. El Kun fired a shot that was stopped well by Ben Foster, but the keeper saw his parry fall right into the path of Zabaleta's diving header that neither he nor his defense could stop.
The visitors nearly pegged the goal straight back, but a sixth-minute equalizer was disallowed as the overlapping Billy Jones was fractions offside before delivering his cross. It was a great attacking move led by the excellent Stephane Sessegnon, who was unlucky to see his pass reach a barely offside Jones.
City managed to respond quickly enough through the brilliant Aguero. Some interchange between him, Nasri and David Silva on the left side saw him try to play Silva into the area but was cut off by Morgan Amalfitano. Never one to shy from a shot, Aguero picked up the scraps and lashed home a wicked curler from 20-plus yards out.
The home side were well and truly rolling. Back on track, or so it seemed.
Barely five minutes later, the first signs of complacency hit hard and fast. A not-so-clever short free-kick routine saw Zabaleta dispossessed by Ridgewell, who sent Sessegnon on his way excellently. The mobile midfielder drove his team forward with courage, defended poorly by Gael Clichy.
After turning his man inside-out, the Benin international picked out Vydra and the Udinese loanee laid off to a surging Graham Dorrans, who came seemingly from nowhere. The Scot juggled the ball around Clichy, leaving the Frenchman a shambles as a ferocious half-volley zipped past Joe Hart. A crack in the armor, perhaps?
Whatever it was, City's reaction to it was pretty poor. They continued to boss the ball and pass circles around West Brom, but nothing really came from it until the skipper stepped up—literally, as he pushed forward and found himself in Foster's 18-yard box, eventually dishing to Dzeko to force a corner.
Coincidentally, it was the Belgian's defensive partner in Demichelis who would reward the captain for his hard work. A second corner in the same sequence took a flick from none other than Kompany himself before the Argentine prodded home unmarked.
But yet again, the two-goal cushion seemed to be good enough for City, leaving the Baggies to have the better of proceedings in the last minutes of the half. They very nearly grabbed a second goal after some more great attacking play from Jones and Sessegnon, but yet again Kompany came to the rescue with a key block.
City bounced back into their expected form in the first 15 minutes after the restart, with Nasri and Aguero leading the way probing West Brom's back four and Foster. Aguero did look to pick up yet another knock and was withdrawn just past the hour mark. But his injury was not to the the last, nor the worst, of the night for City.
Just minutes later, Silva tangled for possession with Jones and Amalfitano, and his mesmeric movement got the better of him as his right ankle gave out from under him. He would be stretchered off and replaced by James Milner, leaving his run-in availability thrown into question.
The lack of their two most creative players hurt City in the last 20 minutes, leaving their chances few and far between. Sessegnon would leave the game as well, but his replacement Saido Berahino was inches away from converting the best chance of the closing stages as Ridgewell's cross would sneak just past his outstretched foot.
The full-time score read the same as the half-time score, and City nabbed three huge points but may have lost two key players for their closing matches.
Aguero's injury woes have been far too frequent for City fans' liking. He only returned fairly recently from his latest setback, and may have come off worse for wear in one attack early in the second half. He fought to keep control of the ball and did so well, eventually laying off a pass, but he was visibly slowed by an ankle issue for the 10 further minutes he stayed on the pitch.
Unfortunately, it would be Silva's discouraging-looking injury that killed the mood on the evening. A tussle for possession saw him clash with Jones and Amalfitano, and in five minutes he was carried off the pitch on a stretcher.
City boss Manuel Pellegrini confirmed to the club site that the injury was to the same ankle that kept the Spanish magician out of last week's Sunderland clash. But this looked like the kind of injury that might keep the maestro out of City's last four matches. Hopefully for Pellegrini, that doesn't end up being the case.
With the injury list growing and a potential bogey match in the waiting at Selhurst Park this weekend, City will need to buckle down and figure something out. Jesus Navas might return to the starting fold if he's healthy—he's injured as well, as Pellegrini noted at his Friday presser. Milner would be next in line after the Spaniard.
And if Aguero is injured? Perhaps a rare start for Stevan Jovetic might be on the cards, if Pellegrini wants a more mobile second-striker role to support Edin Dzeko. Or maybe this will make the Chilean to unleash "The Beast," seeing as Alvaro Negredo hasn't featured that frequently in recent times.
Admittedly, the Spaniard's goalscoring form has been lacking for some time, but he still provides a powerful, dangerous presence that will be key in helping to unlock the determined Crystal Palace defense. The Eagles have won five matches on the spin and are buzzing with confidence that another upset could be on the cards.
One other thing that emerged from this match was City's strange lack of true dominance in large stretches. Sure, they ended up with 69 percent of possession and, per Squawka, completed nearly 400 more passes than the Baggies, but there was little attacking intent in many of those passages of play.
Outside of the three goals, you could count on one hand the amount of truly dangerous attacks that City put together. If anything, you could even say that some of the breaks led by Sessegnon through the middle and the marauding Jones overlapping from right-back were more dangerous.
They did have the one goal called off for offside, a decision that may have been a tad harsh on Jones. He was just leaned past the last man, a real shame as he picked out Vydra wonderfully in the box. Sessegnon might've gotten his name on the scoresheet too were it not for Kompany's flying block that sent the ball looping over the bar.
All in all, three points are three vital points for Manchester City. They take to the road for huge matches against Crystal Palace and Everton, with one eye surely on Anfield this weekend. A Chelsea win pulls Liverpool back to the pack, leaving City to merely need to win out to take the title in almost 2012-esque fashion.
There were a few less-than-encouraging signs in this match, not the least of which being the injury to David Silva. Compounded with injury woes for Aguero, Navas and Toure, City might be a little thinner than they'd like for the tough run-in they face.
All eyes are on you, Manuel Pellegrini. Can you repeat Roberto Mancini's feat?