WEST BROMWICH – No Kevin De Bruyne, no problem. Even without their brilliant midfielder, Manchester City returned to the top of the Premier League with a 5-0 win over West Bromwich Albion.
The city’s pursuit of a third title in four years may depend on how they do without De Bruyne, who has started rehab for the next four to six weeks without the hamstring injury he sustained against Aston Villa last week . Pep Guardiola’s side have got off to a good start in life without the Belgian but they will face even tougher tests before their star midfielder and chief performer is back.
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West Brom are now six points away from safety after a 13th loss this season, but Sam Allardyce, who made his debut for Robert Snodgrass, was in situations like this often enough to know that it wasn’t going to be games against the top teams who decide whether or not you go down Fulham, also in the relegation zones, is here on Saturday – a must if Allardyce is looking to create another great escape.
After brushing West Brom aside for eleven straight wins, City will appreciate their chances of doing the same to Sheffield United on Saturday, but by February they will truly feel the effort of having their best player on the sidelines. After starting the month with a trip to Burnley, they face Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal for three consecutive weekends. Guardiola is hoping to have De Bruyne back for Manchester United’s visit to Etihad Stadium on March 6, but that’s no guarantee.
Guardiola has been here before. A string of injury breaks in 2018-19 meant De Bruyne could only play 19 league games, but it didn’t stop City from winning the Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup for England’s first national double to record. This saying will be easier to use if Ilkay Gundogan, who plays further ahead than usual, can stay in shape with his life.
The German scored two goals in the first 30 minutes at the Hawthorns and scored seven goals in his last eight league games. He has scored in three straight league games for the first time since moving to England in 2016 and has already had a high-goal career for one season (seven) even though it was only half-time.
“He has that smell,” said Guardiola.
“Sometimes he plays as the holding midfielder or back, but when he plays near the box he has that smell to make those good runs in the box and the quality with the ball, he’s always there.
He can take a touch, slow down, take a second to compose and finish. We are excited about what he does. Sometimes in football you have to score goals to get recognition, but that’s fine. “
It was telling that Gundogan finished first with the game he won at the beginning of the second half. With De Bruyne already absent, Guardiola cannot afford another important midfielder injury.
“Of course Kevin is a big mistake for us, but we have players who have more playing time and we need everyone because each gives us a different quality that we need to keep going,” said Gundogan afterwards.
“I’m more offensive, when I get a chance near the pits, I try to make the right decisions. I was just trying to do my best. I’m in the right places at the right moment.” . “
Gundogan’s first goal of the night was drawn in from the edge of the penalty kick, causing Allardyce to yell at his players, “You’re watching the ball.” It didn’t seem to help and at halftime they’d hit City four times. In fact, Allardyce was so disappointed with his team’s efforts that he locked the team in the dressing room for over an hour after the final whistle.
Allardyce was particularly upset by the second goal that Joao Cancelo rolled into the top corner after Bernardo Silva was sidelined in build-up. West Brom defenders appeared to have stopped when the ball went in, only VAR Craig Pawson ruling that Silva was on the side and that the goal should be.
“We don’t blame any decision,” said Snodgrass.
“It’s hard to take. When you look back, it was the delay in the flag flying – it was a tough decision.
That’s just one of the things that went wrong. Tonight we’re not going to try to blame everyone else. No hiding in the Premier League, these top guys are punishing you. “
After Riyad Mahrez finished fourth just before the break, Raheem Sterling added a fifth just after the break. Despite Guardiola’s insistence that his team fight for goals, they now have 36 in the league season – just like Manchester United and only one less than top scorer Liverpool. At the other end, City remained clean and scored eleven goals in 19 games this season. City has only conceded one goal in the last ten and a half hours of the league. City flies even without De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero.
“We’re creating more chances and only receiving a few and the team is there,” said Guardiola.
“It doesn’t matter who is playing. It’s a good result and now we’re going to take a little rest and prepare for Sheffield United.”