Great Britain

De Bruyne masterclass against Hammers marred by fan protest at UEFA

YOU have to hand it to Manchester City – the title has gone but they keep on setting firsts.

Last night they were at it again…the earliest end-of-season game in Premier League history. Just past mid-February, in fact.

That’s certainly what it felt like at a half empty Etihad. Not too many fans, not too much in the way of fun, and not a hint of anything other than the most comfortable of home wins.

Thank Heavens, then, for Kevin De Bruyne. At least the brilliant Belgian managed to produce a few moments of fizz, to offset the lingering flatness of last Friday’s European ban.

He scored the second after his corner had created the first, and lit up a game that will rank in the instantly forgettable.

There were almost as many empty seats as ones with backsides on, to see a rearranged game, with the title race already over, the weather poor, and a European ban looming.

In fact the biggest chants of the night was a rousing chorus of “f*** UEFA,” swiftly followed by a defiant one of “City, City.”

That aside, there was precious little else to excite or warm the soul. Pep Guardiola and City, it is safe to say, have had better weeks.

Hence the desperate need for a shot-in-the-arm win, after two defeats on the bounce and then that devastating news from European football’s corridors of power last week.

Although in fairness, if City had needed a sacrificial opponent to be served up as some sort of footballing therapy, West Ham would have been the ideal choice.

Hammers victories when these two meet are about as commonplace as Christmas cards bearing a Manchester postmark landing on the doormat of European football’s Nyon HQ.

The last seven have all gone to City, scoring 23 goals along the way. In terms of foregone conclusions, this was as certain as it gets.

Not when it took West Ham until two minutes before the break to remotely raise pulses in the home defence, in the shape of a tricky Michail Antonio cross.

By then City should have already been out of sight. It was attack versus defence. It was dads versus lads.

It was so one-sided you wouldn’t have been shocked to see a towel come floating over from the Hammers technical area.

As it is, all the home side had to show for it was a goal that was half an hour in the making and about as flat as this whole game.

Lukasz Fabianksi had conceded one corner by pushing Bernard Mendy’s shot behind at his near post, and then Issa Diop another by nodding away Kevin De Bruyne’s cross.

There was to be no escape a third time – although it’s safe to say City have scored a lot more easy-on-the-eye openers over the years.

Again De Bruyne swung over the corner, Rodri rose highest and above Ryan Fredericks at the near post, to glance a header goalwards.

The Spaniard wheeled away to celebrate only his third for City – although replays did suggest the final touch before it bounced in came off the bottom of Aymeric Laporte’s boot.

Really, it should never have taken so long for the dam to burst. It should, in fact, have taken no more than six minutes.

That was when David Silva’s superb ball picked out Gabriel Jesus, who should have opened his body and buried it to Fabianski’s left.

Instead he dropped his shoulder, tried a drag back, got his feet in a right old tangle and Ryan Fredericks nipped in to prod it off his toe.

No matter, you thought. The breakthrough is just around the corner, and with City hammering on the door, something had to give.

Fabianski saved a De Bruyne swirler with his feet, then Jesus again delayed and this time Aaron Cresswell raced back to block.

It was smart defending from the left back, yet he also inexplicably appeared to plonk the full palm of his hand on the ball before he did so. A VAR check bizarrely ruled no penalty.

Aguero’s dancing run saw a fizzing strike wide and a rap on the knuckles for an eager ball boy who returned it to Fabianski when it would actually have gone for a throw-in.

It desperately needed a second on two counts – to finally wrap up the points and to make sure the supporters were still actually awake.

When it arrived it came, no surprise, from De Bruyne, trading passes with Bernardo Silva before drilling in at the near post.

Points sealed at last. Although if you’re offered the chance to watch a DVD of this, do yourself a favour…don’t.