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John Stones double sinks Crystal Palace as Manchester City close gap at top

Jamie Jackson at the Etihad Stadium
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Clive Brunskill/EPA</span>
Photograph: Clive Brunskill/EPA

Like a champion racehorse Manchester City are timing their title challenge perfectly, this win moving them into second with 35 points, two behind Manchester United with a game in hand.

This cruise of a victory over Crystal Palace was their fifth in a row in the league and City can – possibly briefly – take over as leaders if they beat Aston Villa here on Wednesday, while United visit Fulham later in the evening.

Pep Guardiola, intent on retaining focus, played down City’s rise. “We fought a lot to be up there. [But] I am not thinking about that – I am preparing for Aston Villa,” he said. “If there is one player I am more than pleased that everything is going well, it’s John Stones. He is playing because he deserves it.A delighted Stones said: “My last [league] goal was against Man United at Goodison [for Everton in 2015], I was 19 – too long. I would have loved a third.“

Related: Manchester City 4-0 Crystal Palace: Premier League – live!

A first alarm for Palace came from a Fernandinho ball driven into their area. This was repelled but the presence of the Brazilian was a clue to Guardiola’s thinking: at 35 he is used when he is most required and so his penchant for the physical stuff would meet Palace’s attritional approach head on.

Palace’s manager Roy Hodgson had his XI arranged in a 4-3-2-1 that featured Jordan Ayew at the tip, with Andros Townsend and Eberechi Eze pushed up behind. A Townsend cross aimed at the latter illustrated the thinking here yet the issue for Palace was the blue wave that moved from back to front effortlessly, as when Oleksandr Zinchenko hit Bernardo Silva before Kyle Walker took over though his cross was Sunday League standard, being sprayed wide.

Guardiola will have lamented the sluggish pace his side settled into. It improved when Kevin De Bruyne broke, passed infield, received again and shot at Vicente Guaita’s goal. Palace were in firefighting mode yet could still break along the right via Townsend, who outpaced Stones and chipped over Ederson to the far post though no teammate was there.

Raheem Sterling (left) scores Manchester City&#x002019;s fourth goal with a superb free-kick.
Raheem Sterling (left) scores Manchester City’s fourth goal with a superb free-kick. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

This was a brief cessation of pressure as City took the lead via a strike of beauty as De Bruyne killed Sterling’s ball before delivering an outside-of-the-right-boot cross that saw Stones heading home, this the peerless Belgian’s 100th assist in all competitions for the club. “What can I say? These kind of players make managers’ lives easy,” Guardiola said.

Yet the home team slowed once more – hogging the ball but content to stroll around in-between passes. Guardiola was seen throwing his hands in despair when play went sideways too often and was happier when, suddenly, Silva found Ilkay Gündogan whose flick was headed by a diving Gabriel Jesus. Guaita clutched it but Palace were alarmed.

Guardiola’s half-time instruction was surely to inject greater urgency. Raheem Sterling showed how when accelerating past Tyrick Mitchell in the area before stumbling – the referee, Lee Mason, correctly ruling no penalty.

Next Zinchenko, Rúben Dias, and Silva tapped the ball between them, play went right, and Sterling won a corner. De Bruyne, not for the first time, lifted the ball over a crowd of players and Palace escaped. They did again when moments later Sterling pinged a cross into the back post and Silva could not connect.

City were in control and soon the lead was doubled. Zinchenko won a corner, Silva took it, and the ball came to Townsend on the edge of the area: Gündogan pickpocketed the Palace man before curling a 20-yard peach into the top corner, to Guaita’s left. “A third goal in a fourth game, and another fantastic one,” said Guardiola. “He helped us live a bit better with the second goal, 1-0 is not easy.”

Moments later Guardiola introduced the in-form Phil Foden, hardly a sight to hearten Palace, and the 20-year-old was soon galloping along the left. De Bruyne was next to trouble Guaita: his pot-shot from distance beat the goalkeeper but not his right post.

Stones, though, did marking his 171st Premier League outing with a second, smashing past Guaita after the goalkeeper kept out Dias’s attempt. From here it was akin to a training ground exercise, City toying with an opponent a class or two below, Sterling fired in a late free-kick to Guaita’s left, completing an impressive evening.

Hodgson said: “We miss [Wilfried] Zaha when he’s not playing but we shouldn’t lose 4-0, Wilf or no Wilf.”