WEST BROMWICH — No Kevin De Bruyne, no problem. Even without their brilliant midfielder, Manchester City moved back to the top of the Premier League table with a 5-0 win over West Bromwich Albion.
City’s quest to win a third title in four years may hinge on how they cope without De Bruyne, who has begun rehab for the hamstring injury he suffered last week against Aston Villa, for the next four to six weeks. Pep Guardiola’s side made a good start to life without the Belgian, but they will face sterner tests than this before their star midfielder and creator-in-chief is back.
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After a 13th defeat of the season, West Brom are now six points from safety but Sam Allardyce, who handed a debut to Robert Snodgrass, has been in situations like this enough times to know it is not games against the top teams that decide whether or not you go down. Fulham, also in the relegation places, visit here on Saturday — a must-win game if Allardyce is going to pull off yet another great escape.
After sweeping aside West Brom to make it 11 wins in a row, City will fancy their chances of doing the same to Sheffield United on Saturday but it is in February that they will really feel the strain of having their best player on the sidelines. After starting the month with a trip to Burnley, they will then face Liverpool, Tottenham, and Arsenal on three consecutive weekends. Guardiola is hopeful of having De Bruyne back for Manchester United’s visit to the Etihad Stadium on Mar. 6 but that is no guarantee.
Guardiola has been here before. A series of injury lay-offs in 2018-19 meant De Bruyne was only able to make 19 league appearances but it didn’t stop City from winning the Premier League, FA Cup, and League Cup to record English football’s first domestic treble. This spell out will be easier to manage if Ilkay Gundogan, playing further forward than he would normally, can stay in the form of his life.
The German scored twice in the opening 30 minutes at the Hawthorns to make it 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 already has set a career-high in goals for a season (seven), despite it only being the halfway point.
“He has that scent,” said Guardiola.
“Sometimes he plays as a holding midfielder or in behind but when he plays close to the box he has this scent to make these good runs into the box and the quality with the ball, he is always there.
He is able to take a touch, slow down, take a second to compose and finish. We are delighted with what he is doing. Sometimes in football, you have to score goals to get the recognition but that’s OK.”
It was telling that with the game already won early in the second half, Gundogan was first to come off. With De Bruyne already absent, Guardiola cannot afford another injury to a key midfielder.
“Obviously Kevin is a big miss for us but we have players who will get more game time and we need everyone because everyone gives us a different quality we need to keep going,” Gundogan said afterwards.
“I’m in a bit more of an offensive role, if I get the chance close to the box I try to make the right decisions. I just tried to do my best. I’m just in the right spaces at the right moment.”
Gundogan’s first of the night was swept in from the edge of the penalty and prompted Allardyce to scream at his players: “You’re ball watching.” It didn’t seem to do any good and by half-time, they had watched City score four times. In fact, Allardyce was so disappointed in his side’s effort that he kept the team locked in the dressing room for over an hour following the final whistle.
Allardyce was particularly upset with the second goal, curled into the top corner by Joao Cancelo after Bernardo Silva had been flagged offside in the build-up. West Brom’s defenders looked to have stopped when the ball went in, only for VAR Craig Pawson to rule that Silva was onside and that the goal should stand.
“We’re not blaming any decision,” said Snodgrass.
“It’s a difficult one to take. Once you look back at it, it was the delay in the flag going up — that was a hard decision.
That’s just one of the things that went wrong. Tonight, we’re not going to try and blame everyone else. No hiding place in the Premier League, these top boys punish you.”
After Riyad Mahrez got the fourth just before half-time, Raheem Sterling added a fifth shortly after the break, and for all Guardiola’s insistence that his team are struggling to score goals, they now have 36 in the league season — the same as Manchester United and just one fewer than top scorers Liverpool. At the other end, City kept another clean sheet to make it 11 in 19 games this season and have now conceded just once in the last 10-and-a-half hours in the league. Even without De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero, City are flying.
“We are creating more chances and conceding few and the team is there,” said Guardiola.
“It doesn’t matter who plays. It is a good result and now we rest a bit and prepare for Sheffield United.”