De Bruyne's fine play takes Man City one step closer to Champions League
MANCHESTER, England -- Three quick thoughts from Manchester City's 3-1 Premier League win over West Bromwich Albion at the Etihad on Tuesday night.
1. De Bruyne takes Man City toward Champions League
The double Champions League winner seems bound for the Champions League. Pep Guardiola has almost avoided the ignominy of finishing fifth and experiencing life in the Europa League. Manchester City cruised past West Bromwich Albion. They need to avoid defeat at Watford on Sunday to be mathematically certain of a top-four finish, but they are three points ahead of Arsenal and their goal difference is five better. It would take quite a swing for the Gunners to overhaul City.
Guardiola had pinpointed a run of three home games -- against Crystal Palace, Leicester and Albion -- and City have won them all. Kevin De Bruyne was outstanding and Yaya Toure terrific in a comprehensive defeat of an unambitious West Brom side who were flattered by the eventual scoreline.
The game was decided in three minutes, courtesy of two interventions from De Bruyne. The Belgian set up Gabriel Jesus for the opener with a 16th assist of the season, thus extending his lead in the creators' chart, before rifling in a half-volley from 20 yards.
Thereafter, it made for a nostalgic night. Toure powered through to score what might be his last City goal. In an instant, he rewound the clock to his turbocharged peak, and the standing ovation he received when replaced was a sign of his vast contribution over seven seasons. The out-of-contract Toure may yet be seen again in a City shirt on this ground. Another of their modern greats will not.
Chants about the departing Pablo Zabaleta formed the soundtrack of the night. The right-back's name was sung long before he was brought on after an hour and to much the loudest cheer of the night. In a sentimental gesture, he was given the man-of-the-match award for his cameo.
Chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak had paid a glowing tribute to Zabaleta in the programme. "Pablo is, and always will be, considered 'The Man' and an honorary 'Manc' by our supporters," he wrote. That much was clear in the outpouring of affection for the Argentinian. When Vincent Kompany came off, a leader ended the night with the captain's armband. It was a reward for the complete commitment Zabaleta has brought to the City cause over nine years.
2. Jesus and Aguero show they can play together
Eight shots on target, six goals. Normally the impressive striking statistics at the Etihad Stadium in recent years have belonged to Sergio Aguero. The latest denoted Jesus' stellar start to Premier League life. He brought up a half-dozen City goals in comparatively simple fashion, tapping in De Bruyne's low centre. The significance lay in the fact he and Aguero were on the pitch at the same time.
They began together for only the second time. Guardiola admitted it was disastrous when Aguero and Jesus first started together, even if both ended up on the scoresheet in a second-half comeback at Middlesbrough. Then both operated as centre-forwards. Jesus stood in for the demoted Raheem Sterling on the right in their reunion.
The merits of having a second specialist scorer in the side were apparent when Jesus, with a predator's instinct, materialised in the six-yard box for a tap-in. There was nothing complicated about the finish; the skill lay in getting in a position to meet the cross.
If Aguero is to remain a first choice next season, he might need Jesus to excel as a winger. This represented a fine start. The 20-year-old seems irrepressible. An overhead kick went over the bar, but it was an indication of his confidence. While Ben Foster later made a double save to deny Jesus, he offered another dimension roaming from the right.
Brazil and Argentina may be historical foes, but this was a night to suggest the Brazilian and Argentinian can play together. Aguero was unable to get the goal that would have equalled his best return of 32 in a season, but his was not a fruitless night. Guardiola wants more than just a scorer. Aguero earned himself an assist, exchanging passes with Toure when the midfielder struck.
Aguero also showed a willingness to act as a supplier by picking out Leroy Sane, who missed a glorious chance. His movement was impressive, too, sometimes exchanging positions with Sane and Jesus. It was a performance to suggest Guardiola might be happy to keep him.
3. Albion's end-of-season slump continues
It might not have been a scoreline to surprise Arsene Wenger. The Arsenal manager had questioned the integrity of some teams with little to play for. Albion would appear to be a case in point. Their season seemed to end when they beat Arsenal in March. Since then, they have played eight games and lost six, taking just two points.
And yet, although they rarely tried to score, it is hard to argue they did not try. Theirs were not the tactics of a carefree side. They came to suppress, not to surge forward. Tony Pulis took out the triple insurance policy of fielding three defensive midfielders, in Claudio Yacob, Darren Fletcher and Jake Livermore. Albion's game plan against elite opponents, especially away from home, often appears to be to draw 0-0. This was a familiar blueprint. Willy Caballero did not need to touch the ball for 23 minutes.
Yet Albion's approach was rendered redundant when they found themselves adrift. They scarcely became more adventurous, despite substitute Hal Robson-Kanu's late strike. It is easy to find fault with Salomon Rondon, who has scored only once in his past 22 games, but the lone, lonely striker was starved of service.
If his impotence is a constant, other things are not. The 37-year-old Gareth McAuley had started the first 36 league games. Cruelly, he lost his record as an ever-present in the penultimate match. Meanwhile Albion, who have occupied eighth place since December, now risk being displaced by Southampton on Wednesday. Their slide could come at a cost.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.