So to Stamford Bridge and the first testing ground of the new and possibly improved Manchester City. As autumn loomed last year, Pep Guardiola’s glorious football tapestry began to unravel with defeat at Tottenham.
Whether this season’s model is more carefully stitched, we shall see. Liverpool were meant to assert quality control but were undone when Sadio Mane was sent off.
Twenty-two goals in the last five games suggests that City are even more formidable going forward than even before. And when even Fabian Delph is hitting glorious, curling strikes into the top corner, you might well conclude that everything is heading in the right direction.
Fabian Delph curls a spectacular effort beyond Wayne Hennessey and into the top corner to score Manchester City’s fifth
The goalscorer is hugged by team-mates David Silva and Fernandinho after scoring the pick of the goals on Saturday
Sergio Aguero gets his name on the scoresheet after placing a standing header beyond Wayne Hennessey to make it 4-0
Sergio Aguero celebrates after getting in on the act as Manchester City leapt to the top of the table on goal difference
Sergio Aguero races to congratulate Raheem Sterling after he added his second of the game to put the result in no doubt
Sterling makes sure from close-range after latching onto Sergio Aguero’s knock-down from Kevin De Bruyne’s crossfield ball
Raheem Sterling embraces team-mate Leroy Sane after the German’s precise cross gave him a tap-in at the far post
Sterling points to the heavens after doubling the home side’s advantage shortly after the half-time interval
Leroy Sane slides the ball past the onrushing Wayne Hennessey after dinking the ball over Scott Dann’s head in the box
The German international celebrates with his arms outstretched after breaking the deadlock on the stroke of half-time
MATCH FACTS, PLAYER RATINGS AND MATCH ZONE
Manchester City (4-3-3): Ederson 6; Walker 7, Stones 6.5 (Delph 70, 8) Otamendi 6, Mendy 6 (Danilo 29, 7); D. Silva 8 Fernandinho, 6.5 De Bruyne 8; Sterling, 8 (Bernardo 61, 6.5) Aguero, 8 Sane 8.5
Subs not used: Bravo, Mangala, Gabriel Jesus, Toure
Booked: Mendy, Danilo, Sane
Goalscorers: Sane 44, Sterling 51, 59, Aguero 79, Delph 89
Crystal Palace (4-4-1-1): Hennessey 8; Fosu-Mensah 5.5, Dann 5.5, Sakho, 6.5 van Aanholt 6; Townsend, 6.5 Milivojevic, 6 Cabaye, 5.5 (Puncheon 57, 7) Schlupp 6; Loftus-Cheek 6.5; Benteke; 6 (Sako 71, 6)
Subs not used: Speroni, Ward, Tomkins, McArthur, Riedewald
Referee: Neil Swarbrick 7
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Leroy Sane scores the opening goal after good work from David Silva. CLICK HERE for more from MATCH ZONE.
And yet, judgement will be withheld until the back four is under severe pressure. Guardiola always argues that the best form of defence is possession of the ball.
Yet even on Saturday there were those tell-tale signs that a better side than the one bottom of the table with no goals and no points might exploit this system and find the weaknesses in these players.
By the end, it looked bad for Palace. And, in truth, it’s hard to gloss over any 5-0 defeat. And yet for 45 minutes, this was a performance honed in the image of Roy Hodgson. Indeed, the improvement, even from his first game, was enormous in that first half.
In less than two weeks he seemed to have imposed order and tactical balance into this side. That it fell apart quite so badly in the second half is the issue for Hodgson now.
To be clear, the first half was still dominated by Manchester City. There was Kevin De Bruyne hitting the post after just seven minutes, in what looked suspiciously like a cross, followed by De Bruyne dribbling past three players for Leroy Sane to strike just wide from the edge of the box on 11 minutes.
David Silva gets hold of the ball in midfield as Andros Townsend looks the other way in the early stages on Saturday
Mamadou Sakho chases after his former Liverpool team-mate Raheem Sterling during the clash at the Etihad Stadium
Manchester City winger Leroy Sane leaps into the air to avoid the challenge of Crystal Palace defender Timothy Fosu-Mensah
Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling races forward with the ball as he is surrounded by three Crystal Palace players
Manchester City’s Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne rides the challenge of Crystal Palace defender Scott Dann
Crystal Palace midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s path forwards is blocked by the sliding challenge of defender John Stones
And then there was Wayne Hennessey making a point blank save from Fernandinho on 13 minutes and then from Raheem Sterling on 16 minutes.
But there was also the moment when Ruben Loftus-Cheeker wriggled past his marker and struck a shot against the post in 19 minutes. Space abounded in the area around Fernandinho and Loftus Cheek used it well.
And if Palace could have played earlier, more accurate balls, Christian Benteke was always lurking, ready to take on John Stones. Loftus-Cheek went close again on 28 minutes, dragging a shot wide of the far post after Fernandinho deflected it into his path.
Aguero probably should have finished when he lifted over from Sane’s pull back on 33 minutes. But just as the respite of half-time loomed, Palace faltered. In fairness. City are so slick it’s hard to hold out indefinitely.
Sane spun inside and played a ball to David Silva, whose return to Sane was exquisite, lifting it into his path as raced to goal. The German flicked it past Scott Dann and finished clinically with 45 minutes on the clock.
From thereon it generally feels a questions of how many City wish to score; and whether Sergio Aguero would have his crack at beating Eric Brook’s all time record, for which he needed a hat-trick.
Manchester City midfielder Fernandinho strikes the ball as Crystal Palace striker Christian Benteke lies stricken on the ground
Crystal Palace midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek almost gives the away side the lead but his effort strikes the post
Crystal Palace’s Christian Benteke looks to dissect the challenges of Manchester City defenders John Stones and Kyle Walker
Manchester City defender Benjamin Mendy grimaces after he is caught by a hefty challenge from Andros Townsend
The French international is escorted off the pitch by a physio as he makes way for fellow full-back Danilo in the first-half
Manchester City No 1 Ederson clutches the ball tight in his chest as Palace striker Christian Benteke takes evasive action
Christian Benteke was forced off the pitch in the second-half with a knee injury to deepen Crystal Palace’s woes on Saturday
Crystal Palace’s players slope back to the half-way line after conceding again in a heavy defeat at the Etihad Stadium
On 52 minutes, De Bruyne found Sane speeding down the wing and so quick was the interchange of passes that he could simply roll it across the face of goal for Sterling to side-foot home with barely a hint of protest from Palace.
Sterling found the side-netting on 54 minutes and Hennessey denied Aguero his 176th City goal on 59 minutes, squaring up to the Argentine and saving with his feet.
But on the hour, De Bruyne with one pass opened up Palace again, finding Aguero, who squared for Sterling to score his second of the afternoon. The Londoner was soon replaced, his work done for the day, with Shakhtar Donetsk on the horizon.
And Aguero would edge closer to that Brook record on 78 minutes, Sane delivering a straightforward cross which the Argentine, given time and space, simply headed in rather routinely.
The denouement was provided by Delph, on as a sub and delivering a wonderful, curling strike from the edge of the box which had Guardiola off his seat, applauding excitedly and grinning with sheer pleasure. For now, City are top and seemingly untouchable. So bring on the champions.
Germany coach Joachim Low was in attendance on Saturday to catch a glimpse of Sane ahead of the international break
New Crystal Palace manager Roy Hodgson embraces his opposite number Pep Guardiola on the touchline ahead of kick-off