Sergio Agüero’s time at Manchester City may be coming to an end but he certainly won’t be forgotten in a hurry. A 182nd Premier League goal for the club and his first from open play for 12 months ensured Pep Guardiola’s side moved to within touching distance of a fifth title in a decade since the Argentinian’s arrival from Atlético Madrid.
Anything less than a victory for Manchester United against Liverpool on Sunday will confirm what we have all known would happen for some time now.
Incredibly, this was City’s 11th successive away victory since drawing at Old Trafford on 12 December – a new record – with an aggregate score of 28-4. The only question now is whether City can finish off Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday and reach the Champions League final for the first time. In this form, not many would bet against it.
Having spent most of the season playing without a recognised striker, Guardiola selected two at Selhurst Park as Ederson, Rodri and João Cancelo were the only starters from the first leg of the semi-final against PSG to retain their places. City have been on the road since their surprise defeat against Leeds on 10 April – a run of six matches and more than 3,000 miles – and their manager admitted beforehand that unsurprisingly some of his players were “tired and exhausted” from their exploits.
With rumours of a potential free transfer to Chelsea still swirling, Agüero was making only his fifth Premier League start of the season having amassed almost 400 in the previous decade. He was deployed in a deeper role here behind Gabriel Jesus in one of Guardiola’s more conventional formations, although it was a Palace striker who had the best early opportunity.
Christian Benteke’s contract is also up in the summer and his timid header from a perfect Andros Townsend cross was an illustration of why Palace are in no rush to offer their club record signing another extension. Raheem Sterling was not much better at the other end after dribbling into the penalty area and eventually sending his shot way off target under pressure from Tyrick Mitchell.
Some excellent interplay between Agüero and Jesus that required a last-ditch clearance from Joel Ward was a glimpse of the partnership’s potential in spearheading the attack. But a City defence missing the assuredness of Rúben Dias – who took his place on a star-studded bench alongside Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and the rest – were thankful to escape with conceding when Ederson blocked Benteke’s goalbound shot from close range with his legs.
Palace’s organisation – a hallmark of their manager, of course – continued to frustrate the visitors and a volley from Jesus was correctly disallowed for offside in the 36th minute. Doubts remain over whether Roy Hodgson will continue next season, with the former England manager who turns 74 in August still yet to be offered a new contract. Yet aside some brief pressure just before half-time, Palace’s discipline in closing down the spaces for their opponents was an illustration of why he will not be easily replaced.
It was the first time in 21 games that City had failed to muster a shot on target in the first half – a statistic that would not have pleased their manager. But while Foden, Ilkay Gündogan and Bernardo Silva were sent out early to warm up, Guardiola resisted the temptation to make a change.
After another last-ditch clearance from Jesus, his faith was rewarded when Agüero controlled Benjamin Mendy’s pass infield and smashed a shot past Vicente Guaita from 15 yards out. As he took the plaudits from his teammates, Guardiola doffed an imaginary cap to City’s record goalscorer.
The contest was all over 84 seconds later when Sterling and Jesus combined to set up Torres, who stroked the ball into the net from the edge of the box got spark wild celebrations in the corner – this time led by substitute De Bruyne.
City showed no mercy after their quickfire double and could easily have extended their lead had it not been for Guaita and some frantic Palace defending. Jesus was among those to fail to take advantage as the visitors racked up 13 shots in the second half. But the afternoon already belonged to Agüero.