City recover from early sting to take out Hornets

Posted by David Mooney

Sergio AgueroAllsportSergio Aguero scored a hat trick in City's comeback win over surprising Watford.

Manchester City's second-half performance against Watford was an ingenious solution to a problem that never should have existed in the first place. The 4-2 victory flattered the Blues, if anything, in a match that placed several feline creatures among many a flock of pigeons at a number of points throughout the 90 minutes.

- Report: City stage comeback

There were warning signs for the home fans when the Championship side started the better. True, City had rotated their pack somewhat, but the starting lineup contained 10 players who had regular Premier League experience and one youngster who put in a man-of-the-match performance in a cup semifinal last week. Excuses were thin as one or two boos rang out to greet the halftime whistle with the hosts two goals behind.

Make no bones about it -- it was a thoroughly deserved two-goal lead for the Hornets. The two strikes both highlighted worrying concerns for the Blues beyond their first-choice options: The opening goal came via a neatly executed through ball that exposed a severe lack of cohesion between Joleon Lescott and Martin Demichelis, giving Costel Pantilimon little chance when one-on-one with Fernando Forestieri.

The home fans were left baffled when, a mere eight minutes later, City hadn't learnt any lessons and were punished for it. Troy Deeney might have been offside when the ball to him was played, but he deftly flicked it past the goalkeeper when the hosts' midfield had failed to deal with that never-normally-awkward beast known as "possession." It was relinquished cheaply, and Watford demonstrated a swift breakaway.

On top of the two goals, the very first time the away side ventured into the Blues' penalty area, they could have had a spot-kick. Pantilimon was somewhat lucky that the referee didn't point to the spot for a clumsy challenge as the Romanian goalkeeper hesitated.

The truth is, Watford pulled off one of the best tactical setups to face City that has been seen this season. Albeit a weaker than normal City side, it still should have been strong enough to have won a game against mid-table Championship opposition -- however, the runners the Hornets were employing and the high-press they were using when not in possession worked, and the Blues had no answer.

But Manuel Pellegrini played his hand early, making two changes at the break. Switching in Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta for Jack Rodwell and Micah Richards doesn't look like a particularly attacking move, but it was. It meant Demichelis could perform the holding role in midfield and Yaya Toure could bomb on forward. The introduction of Zabaleta also freed Jesus Navas on the right, as the Argentine full-back overlaps and underlaps like no other in the league, giving the Spanish winger more space.

The good old "Football Manager" school of thought is that a gaffer should throw on strikers when they need a goal (or two). However, Pellegrini, in his postmatch news conference, hinted at his thinking: It's useless throwing forwards on if the team doesn't have possession of the ball, as it just isolates more players. So, he needed to sort the defence and midfield out first.

Here, we must interject with a question about Richards' future at the Etihad. He had such a good 2011-12 season, but, in the course of the past 18 months, he has slipped so far behind his rival for the position that it's frightening.

The result of the substitutions was a complete reversal of roles. Throughout the second half, it was Watford that couldn't hang on to possession and City that did all of the attacking. Sergio Aguero was in the right place at the right time to convert after a great save by Jonathan Bond from Edin Dzeko. The same two combined with 11 minutes to play to engineer the same outcome -- this time via a beautiful curling effort by the Argentine.

Had the game ended there, few would have complained, with both sides having dominated a half and a draw probably the fair result. Football, though, has never been fair, and Bond would have been feeling exactly that as Aleksandar Kolarov's low effort from 35 yards squirmed right through his body and into the net with just four minutes to play.

There was still time, though, for Aguero to seal his perfect hat trick. Having netted already with his right foot and then his left foot, he added his third with his head deep into stoppage time to put Watford out of the game.

Credit has to go to the Championship side for their original tactics, which proved to be (with the exception of Champions League holders Bayern Munich) the hardest the Blues have faced at home this season. But the day belonged to Pellegrini's deft tweaks to his system, which got his team onto the front foot and allowed their forward players to take advantage.

If City's name is to be on the FA Cup and the manager does continue to rotate his squad for the competition, they're going to need some serious improvements in future rounds. Lady Luck might not be as kind in Round 5.

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