Is this the weekend on which the Premier League title is won? If Chelsea wins away to Manchester United on Sunday they will be eight points clear of the champion – still the closest of its realistic rivals – at the top of the table with what are arguably their two toughest away trips out of the way. From then on it could be a procession: none of the major sides are playing with conviction other than Chelsea, which has looked utterly ruthless.
West Ham rode its luck to an extent in the second half as City twice hit the woodwork, but the win was hardly a great injustice: over the game as a whole, West ham was probably the better side, for all it was clinging on in the final minutes. The interplay of its front two of Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho, backed up by Stewart Downing, a revelation in his central role, is both attractive and effective. That it is fourth in the league is thoroughly representative of how it has played of late. Yet, for all it deserves praise, this was another flat performance from a Manchester City side that only really got going after half-time.
“I’m disappointed about the score,” said the City manager Manuel Pellegrini. “There were many clear chances to score. West Ham played very well in the first half. We had a couple of chances. We improved a lot on the second. I don’t think they deserved the victory.”
West Ham’s opener came from just the sort of spark City had lacked. Alex Song, shorts oddly hitched up, played a pass through the inside-right channel for Enner Valencia. He zipped by a dozing Gael Clichy and, as City defenders fell like skittles, dragged the ball back to give Morgan Amalfitano a tap-in at the back post. It could easily have been worse for City before half-time. Stewart Downing pit a free-header just over, Valencia scuffed a shot having found space just inside the box and there were a couple of crosses that flashed across the six-yard box without getting the touch that would have brought a goal. Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager, may have been railroaded into the changes in style, but the result is a watchable team that is winning games.
Adrian made fine saves from a deflected early Sergio Aguero shot and then when the forward tried to chest David Silva’s cross goalwards, but they were isolated incidents. This was a sluggish City performance, lacking cohesion and drive. It seems this season to have become a side reliant on individual performances. Perhaps Yaya Toure will lollop forwards to score. Perhaps David Silva will conjure something. Perhaps Aguero will ravage an opponent with his pace. But there is little sense of structure or co-ordinated effort; it’s not way for one of the top sides to perform. Remarkably City has a point more after nine games this season than it did last, but last season didn’t feature a rampant Chelsea. “I trust in this group of players,” said Pellegrini unconvincingly. “We are in a good position.”
Toure, as so often, set the tone and that tone was largely lethargic. There has been much conjecture about the reasons for his indifferent form this season, but whatever the reason, he is not the consistent driving force he is at his best. All year he has been playing in fits and starts, while his agent’s comments – pretty obviously angling for a move to Paris Saint-Germain – have added to doubts about his commitment.
The second half brought an increased urgency from City and with it increased threat. Aguero, picked out by Jesus Navas’s low cross, hit the bar from eight yards out, Adrian making a remarkable reflex grab to snaffle Toure’s follow-up on the line. Toure then curled one against the angle of post and bar.
West Ham, though, have such pace in forward areas that they will always be dangerous. Sakho had already put one opportunity just over from a Cheikhou Kouyate lay-off when, with 15 minutes remaining, he met Aaron Cresswell’s cross form the left with a powerful downward header. Joe Hart, diving to his left, hooked the ball away, but goal-line technology confirmed that the ball had just crossed the line.
Almost immediately, David Silva scored a breathtakingly good goal wobbling in from the right and whipping his shot inside the left-hand post. It’s the sort of individualism that’s saved City on numerous occasions this season. This time, it was not enough and the title is slipping form its grasp.