LONDON: Pep Guardiola reached his first Premier League ‘breathing space’ with the satisfaction of seeing Manchester City top of the Premier League and with a 100pc three wins from three games.
The manner of City’s first-half display in their 3:1 dismissal of West Ham suggested they had made better use of pre-season than either Chelsea or Manchester United, with whom they stand level on points. But the fact that Hammers snapped back in the second half was a lesson for Guardiola that nothing in the Premier League may ever be taken for granted.
Next for Guardiola, after the international break, will be the Manchester derby against United and Jose Mourinho – with so much at stake in local, club and personal pride. City may be without Sergio Aguero if the FA punishes him with the standard three-game ban for an elbow into the neck of Winston Reid, unseen by the officials.
The run-up to the West Ham game had been less about whether City could maintain their positive start under Guardiola and more about the Joe Hart issue. It had been clear since the summer that Guardiola did not consider Hart good enough as a ‘keeper-sweeper’ and the midweek signing of Claudio Bravo confirmed that England’s No1 is only City’s No3.
City paid £13.75m for Bravo who will make his start after the international break with Willy Caballero stepping down to become the official No2 ahead of Hart and promising young Angus Gunn.
Guardiola’s words of praise for Bravo also expressed his dissatisfaction with Hart. He said: “Claudio’s experience – to anticipate situations not in the box and in front of the box, being good in the buildup plays and quick under the posts – means he is a good player for us.”
Hart is likely to be stuck in the shadows for the first half of the season at least. Part of the problem is that few other clubs would be willing to match his £100,000-a-week wages. Everton showed brief interest then turned away.
Fair play promise
Sunderland need a goalkeeper after injury to Vito Mannone but cannot meet Hart’s wages. Interest from Spain and Germany soon evaporated leaving Torino as apparently the only foreign club still considering an offer. In any case, that be only a loan with City sharing the wage bill.
Guardiola said: “If the transfer window is closed and he is here, he has to stay here, he will be treated like another one. I will try to be fair with him.”
But ‘fair’ means rotation which indicates one game on the bench every three weeks. New England manager Sam Allardyce has already said that he will only consider players who are first-team regulars.
City may not sign any more players this week but they may well release at least two. On Thursday Guardiola must finalise his squads for the Premier and Champions Leagues and both have a limit of 17 senior foreign players. Bravo’s arrival means City have 19 imports and any two out of Samir Nasri, Eliaquim Mangala and Wilfried Bony will be surplus to requirements.
Hart was on the subs’ bench against West Ham and was warmly applauded by City fans as he left the pitch after the pre-match warm-up. But, once the game against West Ham was under way, all the applause for City’s magnificent start. Nolito set up the first for Raheem Sterling then Kevin De Bruyne’s superb free-kick created the second for Fernandinho with less than 20 minutes gone.
West Ham manager Slaven Bilic had criticised his players for a lack of commitment after their surprise elimination at home by Romania’s Astra Giurgiu in midweek. Their problem against City was that they could not even hold the ball, let alone show any creative commitment with it.
De Bruyne was outstanding. He clipped the top of the bar with another free kick and then missed an open goal. West Ham’s use of three at the back was proving ineffective. Three times Wales’ James Collins had to make desperate late, saving tackles.
West Ham had a further scare at the start of the second half when City had the ball in the net again only for Nolito to be ruled offside.
However City were so dominant that they switched off at the back. Gael Clichy stood rooted to the spot as substitute Michail Antonio headed home virtually the Hammers’ first chance of the game.
Bilic rang more changes in tactics and personnel in pursuit of a draw. City, for the first time, began to misplace their passes, before finally pulling their game back together.
Nasri, on as a late substitute, had a shot cleared off the line, then David Silva hit a post before Sterling grabbed the last-minute decider which took City top of the table on goal difference.