Verdict: Manchester City 2 West Ham United 1
Goals: De Jong 10 mins, Zabaleta 14 mins for City. Ba 33 mins for West Ham.
Two early goals secured three vital points but gave way to a casual performance against a depleted West Ham side who should have been dispatched more comfortably. At least there were two welcome, if unlikely, scorers in the shape of Nigel de Jong and Pablo Zabaleta.
For the third game in a row Roberto Mancini named an unchanged starting eleven and substitutes bench. Rather than cohesion, such familiarity appeared to induce a casual approach. Gareth Barry was the brightest player in a start which was almost as one-sided as that seen at Blackburn.
The difference here was that dominance of possession was converted into goals. De Jong finally kept one of his long range efforts on target and reaped the rewards with his first goal for the club.
“The boys had been asking me when I was going to score my first goal and saying I had lost my touch, and all sorts of things had been getting into my head.
“So it is nice to score a goal to make sure your side is leading 1-0. It was a personal victory as well.”
This was quickly followed by Pablo Zabaleta making the most of the space available to him by charging forward, playing a one-two with David Silva, and seeing his cross-cum-shot deflected into the net.
West Ham had begun with Dember Ba and Robbie Keane up front, allowing City to dominate in midfield and on the flanks. Following the goals Avram Grant moved Ba to the left in a move that gave Zabaleta some defending to think about.
This may have come too late to change the outcome, but it did help to make the remainder of the game a more even contest. City made an unwelcome contribution to adding a competitive edge by appearing to give up on defending for a few minutes.
First Robbie Keane had a clear run on goal, which was excellently dealt with by Joe Hart. With Mancini still glowering on the touchline, West Ham then scored as Ba didn’t wait for the referee’s whistle following a Lescott handball and lashed the ball home.
City’s relaxed attitude had once again seen them surrender the initiative in a game that should have been as comfortable as the 5-0 against Sunderland. The slow build-up that too often characterises Mancini’s side failed to make the most of Balotelli’s excellent movement in the remainder of the first half. For once it was easy to understand the Italian striker’s frustration.
The second half saw the blues move the ball forward faster, and chances were created. Now it was time for the fans to become frustrated with Balotelli as he failed to convert chances or get on the end of crosses. In fairness to Mario one effort which struck the bar was a fine attempt, while David Silva should have converted himself, when through on goal, rather than electing to pass.
City often lose their solidity without Nigel de Jong, however his half-time departure saw James Milner put in an excellent 45 minutes of industry and incisive passing. This was the Milner of last season and the player we have been hoping for.
Following his nightmare at Anfield this was an excellent response and it’s to be hoped we see more of the same. Mancini needs to keep playing him in central midfield.
With Balotelli getting frustrated it was surprising to see Barry rather than the Italian make way for Dzeko. It’s rare for Mancini to make an attacking substitution when we’re in the lead, but the change saw us retake the initiative.
Dzeko managed a couple of long range efforts and held the ball up in the corner to help see us through. At least in the second half the defending of Lescott and the rest ensured West Ham’s lively strikers didn’t get another clear sight of goal.
This was the third game in a row won by the odd goal, and the ability to close out games looks like seeing us through to Champions League qualification. It’s a telling statistic on the Mancini method of professionalism and organisation.
City could now seal a top four finish with four points from the next two games against Everton and Spurs. That would be a fabulous achievement, but the team will need to play better in both those fixtures.