Manchester City – Crystal Palace: John Stones scored a pair of goals either side of halftime, to go with one from Ilkay Gundogan, to push Man City into second place in the Premier League table — two points back of Manchester United, with a game in hand — by way of a 4-0 victory at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
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It was the seventh clean sheet for Manchester City during their now-nine-game unbeaten run in Premier League play, as Pep Guardiola’s side continued its slow but steady ascent toward the summit. Man City sat 13th in the table following their last loss back on Nov. 21.
3 things we learned: Manchester City – Crystal Palace
1. Manchester City’s defense smothers another: Since losing to Tottenham 2-0, Man City have allowed opponents to take just 63 shots in nine games (7 per game), including two to Crystal Palace on Sunday. They have allowed double-digit shots and been out-shot just once (in the same game, against Manchester United, 11-9). It is probably, then, no coincidence they have conceded just two goals in that same period, given they only allow opponents to take a shot (oftentimes of very low quality and scoring probability) every 13 minutes.
2. John Stones redemption tour marches on: From seemingly on his way out of the club, to one of the first names on Pep Guardiola’s team sheet and a top performer since returning to the squad back in early November, Stones has saved his career at the club and helped to re-established Manchester City as red-hot Premier League title contenders in the process. The continued absence of Aymeric Laporte (thigh), who hasn’t played since before Christmas, is a non-issue thanks to Stones’ resurrection — merely capped off by Sunday’s brace — and Ruben Dias’s quick acclimation process. Every individual piece of that sentence would have seemed an absolute impossibility just three months ago, let alone a full year.
3. Still not much from the center forward: For all of Manchester City’s defensive dominance and the fact they scored four goals on Sunday, they’re still without a goal from a natural center forward (meaning, Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus) since Nov. 8. At some point, the midfield and defense are going to look to the front man/men to do what they do, at which point Man City’s title credentials might just be approved or revoked.
Stones broke the deadlock in the 26th minute, but in truth it was 99 percent down to the brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne with Stones merely having to redirect the ball with a free header six yards out. The accuracy of any pass to arrive so perfectly would have been impressive enough, if not for De Bruyne’s use of the outside of his foot to bend the ball away from anyone not named Stones.
Gundogan doubled Manchester City’s advantage and effectively put the game to bed with a sensational curler in the 56th minute. The ball fell to the German international well outside the penalty area, where he cut inside to put the ball on his right foot and uncork an unstoppable strike just inside the far post.
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Stones’ second goal didn’t require a world-class cross or any kind of complicated build-up, but it counted all the same in the end. Scrappy and opportunistic, the 26-year-old slotted home after a poorly cleared ball inside Crystal Palace’s penalty area.
Goal no. 4 was, however, quite spectacular as it came off the foot of Raheem Sterling — closely mimicking the free-kick technique made popular by Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale — before nestling into the upper-90 in the 88th minute.