Raheem Sterling’s quick-fire second-half hat-trick sent Manchester City four points clear at the top of the Premier League, but there was controversy over the opener that broke down a stubborn Watford side.
With the game goalless at the start of the second half, Sterling was challenged by Daryl Janmaat as he ran on to Sergio Aguero’s flick and the ball cannoned off him and into the net.
Sterling was clearly offside when Aguero chested the ball into his path and the lineman’s flag went up. But, after a long discussion with his fellow official, referee Paul Tierney overruled his decision, to the disbelief of the Hornets players.
There was no disputing the legality of Sterling’s second goal, which came only four minutes later when he tapped in Riyad Mahrez’s cross at the far post after a flowing City move.
And, just before the hour mark, the 24-year-old England forward made it 3-0, running on to a David Silva pass and cutting past two defenders before slotting home his 18th goal of the season.
Watford, who had made seven changes ahead of their FA Cup quarter-final with Crystal Palace next weekend, belatedly threw on Troy Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu – two of those to be left out.
The pair combined seconds later to pull a goal back with their first touches when Deeney flicked on a long ball for Deulofeu to fire home with his side’s first shot, after 66 minutes.
It proved to be only a consolation rather than the start of an unlikely comeback, with City comfortably holding on to clinch their sixth successive league win.
Their four-point lead is their biggest advantage at the top since 4 December, although Liverpool can cut the gap when they host Burnley on Sunday.
City keep focused and keep winning
It has been a difficult week for the defending champions, with Uefa and the Premier League joining Fifa and the Football Association in launching separate investigations into their financial affairs and academy recruitment.
But if those issues, along with seemingly outlandish claims from Italy that Pep Guardiola has agreed to take charge of Juventus next season, are distracting the Blues players as they chase an unprecedented quadruple, then they did not show it here.
For the third successive game, they faced a side hell-bent on stopping them scoring rather than showing any ambition themselves, but City kept at their task and eventually made the breakthrough.
Like West Ham and Bournemouth before them, Watford camped in their own half and their proximity, physicality and sheer numbers frustrated City for long spells of the first half.
Sergio Aguero should have scored when he found a rare bit of space in the box to meet Bernardo Silva’s cross, but the Argentina striker sent his header bouncing wide and Watford went in happy at half-time.
Sterling, with the assistance of referee Tierney’s interpretation of the offside rule, quickly changed that – and City did not look back.
The whole atmosphere at the Etihad Stadium was lifted, and City’s evening went from a grind to a stroll in the space of 13 minutes as Sterling added two more goals.
Watford’s top-six struggles continue
Watford manager Javi Gracia’s team selection suggested his focus was on next week’s FA Cup tie with Crystal Palace. But if it was, the message did not reach his players.
They defended brilliantly in the first half, although it was at the expense of any meaningful advances into the City half.
That situation only changed when Deeney and Deulofeu appeared off the bench but, although they made an instant impact, City keeper Ederson had little else to do after picking the ball out of his net.
As well as the FA Cup, seventh place remains an achievable target for what has been an impressive season for the Hornets.
But their bid to finish above Wolves and potentially qualify for Europe for the first time since 1983 is being undermined by their form against the top six.
Their home win over Tottenham at the start of September is their only success, and indeed the only time they have taken any points against City, Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal, Manchester United or Chelsea in nine attempts in 2018-19.
On the road, things are even worse – you have to go back to January 2017 for their last away win against any of those sides – and despite their initial resilience at a wet and windy Etihad Stadium, they showed few signs of improving on that record by taking three points here.
Man of the match – Raheem Sterling (Manchester City).
‘Today is not luck’ – what the managers said
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola: “It is the end part of the season so every game is important. 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 [the first goal] is offside but we deserve to win. Against Liverpool, [Watford] tried to press but here they have 11 players in the box. There was no space, but we found it and we created a lot.
“Today is not luck. Here there are many people working to make last season’s level. If they can do that it will be down to hard work and not luck.
Watford head coach Javi Gracia: “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.
“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.”
On Sterling’s opener: “I think everybody could see what happened. But this season I didn’t criticise the referees and I am not going to do that today. In my opinion it is clear.”
City’s remarkable home form continues – the stats
- City have won 10 of their last 11 Premier League games (L1), and are on the longest current winning run in the competition (six games).
- Watford have lost all 10 of their Premier League games against sides starting the day top of the table, scoring just nine goals and conceding 29.
- City have won 45 of the 48 points available to them in home games this season (W15 D0 L1), losing only against Crystal Palace in December.
- Riyad Mahrez has been directly involved in eight goals in his last seven Premier League appearances against Watford (six goals, two assists).
- Sterling scored his hat-trick in 13 minutes and 12 seconds – the fastest in the Premier League since Romelu Lukaku’s treble for Everton v Sunderland in September 2016 (11:37).
- Sterling has been directly involved in 22 home goals in all competitions this season, more than any other Premier League player.
- Sterling has scored in 52 games in all competitions for City, not losing any of those games (W50 D2) and winning each of the last 34.
- Deulofeu’s goal for Watford came just 17 seconds after the Spaniard came off the bench, the fastest sub goal in the Premier League since Sammy Ameobi netted for Newcastle against Tottenham in October 2014 (eight seconds).
- Deulofeu has had a hand in six goals in his last four Premier League appearances for Watford (four goals, two assists), as many as he managed in his previous 19 games this season.