MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - MANCHESTER CITY 3 WATFORD 1
Raheem Sterling struck a second half hat-trick as champions Manchester City put pressure on title rivals Liverpool with a 3-1 win over Watford at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.
The win moved Premier League leaders City four points clear of Liverpool ahead of their home game against Burnley on Sunday — a match Juergen Klopp’s side can ill-afford not to win.
Watford manager Javi Gracia made seven changes to his side and let out key forwards Troy Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu, and the visitors’ deep defending frustrated City in the opening half.
The decision came after his attempt to take on Liverpool at Anfield ended in a 5-0 loss last week and perhaps was also influenced by Watford’s FA Cup quarter-final against Crystal Palace next week.
As usual, Pep Guardiola’s side dominated possession but against such a bank of defenders showing no intention of pushing forward, the match was more like an ‘attack v defence’ training session.
Within a minute of the restart, however, Sterling put City ahead with a controversial goal that was initially ruled out for offside before referee Paul Tierney changed his mind after lengthy consultation with his assistant.
Once again, there was confusion about the current offside law and its interpretation with Watford players incensed — Sterling appeared to be in an offside position when played in by Sergio Aguero and the assistant referee had raised his flag.
The decision appeared to be over-ruled because Daryl Janmaat, the Watford defender, played the ball against Sterling as the City striker aimed for goal.
There was no argument about Sterling’s second as he simply tapped in a Riyad Mahrez cross from close range after he was left alone by the goal line.
The England winger completed his hat-trick in the 59th minute — cutting in from the left, behind Daryl Janmaat, to latch on to a fine David Silva pass, and ghosting across two defenders before drilling home.
Gracia threw on Deeney and Deulofeu in the 66th minute and it took 17 seconds for them to make an impact, Deeney heading down to the Spaniard who slotted home.
But for City, this was another indication that they are not about to lose their nerve in the title run-in.
This was their 10th win in their last 11 Premier League games and sixth straight victory in the competition. Guardiola’s side have won 45 of the 48 points available at home.
“It is the end part of the season so every game is important,” Guardiola said.
“For three months we wait to be top of the league and now we have to try and win our games. I am sorry if it (the first goal) is offside but we deserve to win.
“Today is not luck. We won because we were better, much better than the opponent. Here there are many people working to make last season’s level and if they can do that it will be down to hard work and not luck.”
City now turn their attention to their Champions League last 16 return leg against Germany’s Schalke 04 on Tuesday, which they lead 3-2.
Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond