MANCHESTER, England – Manchester City extended its lead at the top of the English Premier League to four points after a hat-trick from Raheem Sterling saw the Citizens beat Watford 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday evening.
The England forward’s first goal in the 46th minute, which broke the deadlock after a first half in which the champions struggled to carve out any clear chances against a resolute Watford rearguard, was highly contentious.
Sterling was clearly offside when Sergio Aguero played the ball to him before Watford full back Daryl Janmaat’s challenge saw the ball ricochet off the England forward into the goal.
The assistant referee raised his flag for offside, but after a lengthy discussion without the use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system being used across Europe’s top leagues but which will not be introduced in England until next season, the goal was allowed to stand, to the outrage of the visiting Hornets.
They could have no complaints for City’s second goal, which came just four minutes later when Sterling tapped in from Riyad Mahrez’s cross from the right.
City were rampant, and the game was effectively settled less than 10 minutes later when the England winger completed his hat-trick with a cool finish past Ben Foster after being played in by David Silva’s clever reverse pass down the left.
Watford manager Javi Gracia, who rested seven players ahead of next week’s FA Cup quarter final showdown against Crystal Palace, responded to the flurry of goals by sending on Troy Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu, two of his most potent attacking options, and the pair combined in the 66th minute when Deeney flicked on a long ball forward for the former Barcelona forward to score with the Hornets’ first attempt on goal.
That strike gave them some hope of mounting an unlikely comeback, but the champions easily saw the game out to extend their lead at the top of the league to four points. Fellow title-chasers Liverpool will have the chance to reduce that gap to just one when they host Burnley on Sunday.
“I am sorry if (the first goal) is offside but we deserve to win,” City coach Pep Guardiola said after the game, who praised his side’s perseverance against a team that were committed defensively but unadventurous going forward after being beaten by five goals against Liverpool recently.
“There was no space, but we found it and we created a lot. Today is not luck,” the Catalan said.
His compatriot Gracia rued his players’ loss of concentration following Sterling’s controversial opener, although the Spaniard refused to criticise the referee for what he called a “clear” error.
“In the first half we had a very good performance. We were better defensively because we were well organised, we didn’t concede many chances,” Gracia said.
“In the second half, the game changed. After conceding the first goal, there were some moments when we weren’t so focused and then conceded two goals. Then it was impossible to have the option to get any points,” he added.
Watford remain on course for their best-ever top flight finish, while City end a difficult week, which saw various football bodies, including the Premier League, UEFA and FIFA, open investigations into their player recruitment and financial affairs, with a win that keeps them in the fight for an unprecedented quadruple.