5:30 P.M. (EASTERN TIME).
Manchester, England… You know Manchester City are doing well when John Stones, who hasn’t scored a goal in the Premier League for almost six years, comes in at two goals a game.
The Stones’ last league goal for Everton came against Manchester United in April 2015, but two goals against Crystal Palace gave City a 4-0 win and propelled Pep Guardiola’s side into second place in the standings.
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It is the second good result for City on Sunday, following the draw between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield earlier in the day. At the halfway point of the season, five points separate the top six, but even in a tight race, City are now favourites with the bookies to win his third title in four years. It is not without foundation.
Stones has scored three times in his last four games in all competitions, but it was his form in front of his own goal that allowed City to equalise. Since taking over in November, Stones has started 11 games in which City has lost just once. Along with Ruben Diaz, he forms the league’s most average defence, conceding 13 goals in 17 games, four fewer than Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur and 11 fewer than league leaders Manchester United.
Stones came into the second half with a big smile on his face, but he will also be pleased that his effort alongside Diaz prevented Palace from registering a single shot on goal. City is now unbeaten in 15 games, has won eight straight and has conceded just three goals in nearly 23 hours of soccer.
In a season where City struggled to score, Guardiola will be pleased that his team has scored four times, but it is not yet the implacable Manchester City, who defied death and won the title in 2017-18 or 2018-19, and their strength is on the other side at the moment.
We didn’t concede a goal, we were so consistent, it’s an important win, Guardiola said. We’re trying to play the way we’ve played the last few years, and we haven’t made a mistake in the last four years. We have accomplished a lot in the past year.
Last year was the worst – we were always late for that, it was just an individual quality. Ruben [Diaz] was very helpful. If there’s one player I’m more than happy to see doing well, it’s John Stones. He plays because he deserves it.
Error! The file name is not specified. John Stones scored twice, his first Premier League goals in six years, as his return season continued against Crystal Palace. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
It’s a remarkable turnaround for the Stones, who look set to leave in the summer. Contract negotiations were delayed and the arrival of Diaz and Nathan Ake marked the end of Guardiola’s patience with a player who never quite lived up to expectations in his £47m move from Everton in 2016. But with no injuries and a quieter life away from football, Guardiola says the 26-year-old is in the best form of his career.
There is every indication that Aymeric Laporte, whose lengthy absence last season was regularly cited as the reason for Liverpool’s title defence, has not played a league game since the defeat at Tottenham in November, but narrowly missed out. Stones was only on the bench at the weekend for North London’s debacle against Liverpool, but when City take on the champions at Anfield in three weeks’ time, the England defender is likely to be in Guardiola’s first-team line-up.
As did Kevin De Bruyne, whose tasteful cross from the right gave the Stones their first goal, and Raheem Sterling, who scored the fourth from a cheeky free-kick into the top corner. Ilkay Gundogan, so important to Guardiola in the big games, also hit the back of the net with a fine shot from the edge of the area that went to the far post.
This is only the fourth time this season that City have managed to score three or more goals in the Championship, usually to find another way to win. The draw against Palace was the sixth in nine home games and the second in five days following Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Brighton.
If we can keep a clean sheet, we don’t have to score four goals every week, Stones said.
The entire team deserves to be congratulated for the way they lobbied and prevented the attacks that were coming our way.
It’s hard when you’re not playing or performing at your best. I got back to basics by first looking at myself and what I could improve. I had to keep fighting and believing in myself, I did, I kept the faith and I kept going. I’m always trying to improve myself.
The concern of United, Liverpool and the company is that the city will get better too.
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