David Silva imperious as Man City boost Champions League prospects
MANCHESTER, England -- Three quick thoughts from Manchester City 5-0 Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Saturday afternoon.
1. City closer to the Champions League
No-one at Manchester City set their hearts on third place last summer, but after a difficult debut campaign in English football, you suspect Pep Guardiola will happily take it now. That's where City find themselves, having brushed Crystal Palace aside at the Etihad on Saturday. They rose above Liverpool on goal difference and more pertinently, four points clear of Manchester United. Four months ago, after a humiliating 4-0 defeat at Everton, third place was a very distant prospect. But we're starting to see something of the real City now.
They were in front after just two minutes, the goal scored by the outstanding David Silva, and while they took their time to build on that, Palace rarely caused them undue concern. Four more goals from Vincent Kompany, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Nicolas Otamendi gave the scoreline a merited sheen. And they could have scored more.
Gabriel Jesus, continuing his own rapid recovery from an injury that was supposed to have ended his season, headed the hunt for a follow-up to Silva's opener, but a combination of strong goalkeeping from Wayne Hennessey and errant finishing held City back.
Guardiola was in flamboyant mood, using De Bruyne as an auxiliary extra winger in the first half, deploying him first out on the right behind Leroy Sane in an effort to overwhelm Patrick van Aanholt, then out on the left behind Raheem Sterling to befuddle Joel Ward. With Silva in top gear, purring around the pitch, Palace struggled to maintain order at the back. Their efforts in attack were fleeting and ineffectual. Though the pace of Wilfried Zaha was a worry, it wasn't until the 36th minute that Palace had their first spell of serious pressure.
But their resistance lasted only four minutes of the second half. Kompany was allowed to creep into space at the back of the penalty area, De Bruyne found him with a sharp, low pass and the City captain slammed the ball into the back of the net. Kompany is making a habit of scoring important goals. His header at Southampton settled City's nerves in another tricky match last month.
Now the floodgates were open and Palace were washed away. Stripped of anxiety, City poured forward. De Bruyne came close with a free kick that bounced off the top of the bar. Just before the hour mark, he made amends, slipping the ball under Hennessey with a low effort from outside the penalty area for a third. With 10 minutes to go, Sterling was allowed to drive a fourth past Hennessey. Even Otamendi got in on the act as the end drew near. This is what Guardiola's City are supposed to look like. This is what will be expected next season.
2. Big Sam gambles but Palace remain in precarious position
A run of six wins in eight games, culminating with a fine 2-1 win at Liverpool, appeared to have secured Crystal Palace's safety. But as the final whistle blew at the Etihad, it was clear that the Eagles are still in trouble.
Sam Allardyce's bold ploy to field Jeffrey Schlupp in the centre of defence to better repel the small, fast City attackers failed to pay off. This was a drubbing. But it wasn't Schlupp who was to blame for Manchester City's first goal. That dubious honour went to Martin Kelly, who chose to deal with Sterling's second-minute deft cross by heading it straight into the path of Silva. He wasn't going to miss from that range.
Poor Kelly. His afternoon went from bad to worse within 60 seconds when he followed up on that clanger by getting himself booked for bringing down Sterling on the halfway line. On the touchline. Guardiola was incensed. Not because of the colour of the card, but because referee Michael Oliver didn't spot the clear advantage that could easily have granted City a second. Instead, they were forced to wait.
Palace can be resilient when they want to be, and they held out for a deceptively long time. There was even a sting in the tail of the first half. First, a towering Christian Benteke header brought an outstanding save from Willy Caballero and then Van Aanholt was left unmarked to crack off a shot from close range that screamed just wide. But that was it. The second half was a brutal punishment.
They face Hull City at home next and with Manchester United to come on the last day of the season, the clash with the endangered Tigers represents the definition of a make-or-break game.
Optimists in the Eagles' support might point out that Marco Silva's men haven't won away since August. Pessimists will only sigh and tell you that Burnley hadn't won away all season before they went to Selhurst Park last weekend. Palace aren't safe yet.
3. Silva service inspires City
Silva wasn't even supposed to play on Saturday. It came as a surprise even to Guardiola that the medical team judged him fit for duty, but from being rusty or off-key, he gave a virtuoso performance in the centre of midfield. There have been so many superstars through the door since the transformative City takeover nearly a decade ago, but Silva remains one of the best.
He's so calm under pressure, so intelligent in his use of the ball. He doesn't get flustered when the opposition begin to snap at his ankles, he just drops a shoulder, half-spins and zips off in the other direction leaving his tormentors to flounder. Withdrawn to a standing ovation, which included applause from the away end, it's good to have him back.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.