Raheem Sterling scored a 13-minute second-half hat-trick as Manchester City overcame a much changed Watford side 3-1.
Reigning champions City were utterly dominant throughout but struggled to break down a packed Hornets defence until Sterling fortuitously scored just after half-time, a goal which was initially disallowed for offside but eventually awarded after referee Paul Tierney consulted his linesman.
Magnificent Sterling completed his hat-trick before the hour mark with two well-taken finishes before making way for Leroy Sane to a standing ovation. Substitute Gerard Deulofeu reduced the arrears with Watford’s first shot, but the Hornets never looked capable of a full comeback and stay in eighth.
City made two changes from last weekend’s victory at Bournemouth, with Vincent Kompany and Riyad Mahrez coming in for the injured John Stones and Kevin De Bruyne. Aymeric Laporte also returned to the matchday squad after a layoff.
Likely with one eye on next week’s FA Cup quarter-final against Crystal Palace, Watford made seven changes from the team that beat Leicester last time out. Adrian Mariappa, Craig Cathcart and Jose Holebas made way in defence with Christian Kabasele, Miguel Britos and Adam Masina coming in.
Roberto Pereyra and Will Hughes made way in midfield with Kiko Femenia and Tom Cleverley coming in as part of a tactical reshuffle to attempt to contain City. Regular strikers Troy Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu were also rested, with Isaac Success and last week’s hero Andre Gray given starting roles.
Offside? Sterling’s bizarre first goal
Though City were well worth the win, if they go on to win the title they may look back on the eventual awarding of Sterling’s first goal as a pivotal moment. Watford had frustrated City until then and appeared to be saved by the linesman’s flag, but Paul Tierney reversed his assistant’s decision and gave the goal.
Sterling was onside from Ilkay Gundogan’s through ball, but in an offside position when Sergio Aguero knocked it into his path. Daryl Janmaat’s attempted clearance then cannoned into Sterling and into the net.
It cannot be denied that Sterling was in an offside position, nor that he was interfering with play, though he did not connect with Aguero’s pass directly himself. In a week dominated by referee’s interpretations of the laws of the game, this call provides further potential discussion regarding VAR.
Pressure on Liverpool again
This victory took City four points clear of second place Liverpool, who host Burnley on Sunday. With just eight games left to play in the league this season, every win appears to edge City closer to a title that would crush the red half of Manchester.
Both sides are in action in midweek in the Champions League, Liverpool travelling to Bayern Munich with the tie level at 0-0 and City hosting Schalke protecting a 3-2 first-leg advantage.
This week could be pivotal to the eventual destination of the Premier League title, with many suggesting an exit for Liverpool, coupled with City’s likely progression in two cup competitions, could give the Reds the edge as City’s injury woes continue to chip away at their squad.
Dazzling Sterling steals the show
Having taken a big step forward last season, Raheem Sterling continues to prove himself invaluable in City’s quest for silverware.
Now on 15 league goals this season, his consistency has made him one of the first names on a star-studded team sheet this season.
His second Premier League hat-trick continues to lift the burden on Sergio Aguero to score goals, and many believe the Englishman is in with a chance of winning player of the year.
Watford rest stars for FA Cup clash next week
Virtually assured of Premier League survival and with a top-six finish all but impossible, the Hornets seem to be putting several of their eggs in the FA Cup basket.
Next week’s home quarter-final against strugglers Crystal Palace presents an opportunity for Watford to reach just their seventh ever semi-final. With that in mind, Javi Gracia rested several key figures for the trip to the Etihad. The move appeared to be a risk given Watford’s abysmal record against City, but the Hornets held their own until Sterling’s bizarre opener.
Watford fans will be hoping the decision to field a weakened side is vindicated next weekend.
Quiet day for Ederson again
Watford’s changes significantly blunted them as an attacking force, and it took substitutions before the Hornets even had a shot on goal.
Gerard Deulofeu scored just seconds after coming on with their first effort of the day, and the Spaniard also had their only other shot in injury time. Incredibly, in their last three Premier League games, City have faced just four shots. West Ham’s two shots on the 27th February are the other two, with Bournemouth failing to register a single effort last week.