Perhaps it was fitting that as Storm Arwen battered the Etihad with snow, Manchester City continued to play with the ice-cold conviction of champions who are confident of retaining their crown.
After comfortably dispatching one of their rivals for the Champions League in midweek, Pep Guardiola’s title contenders did the same to one of this Premier League season’s early overachievers. David Moyes and his players are quickly discovering the air is a little thinner at this level, even if it would be premature to say that West Ham’s bubble has burst.
This was far from a disgrace for the visitors, as the 2-1 scoreline suggests. Ilkay Gundogan’s first-half strike appeared as though it would be the game’s only goal until a late flurry, with substitute Fernandinho adding a second and Manuel Lanzini’s spectacular stoppage-time consolation.
That 2-1 is not a true reflection of City’s dominance, though. At times, abandonment appeared to be West Ham’s best hope of avoiding defeat. It was not the first time this fixture has been affected by inclement weather in recent seasons. In February of last year, the high winds and hard rain of Storm Ciara forced a meeting between these two sides at the Etihad to be postponed on the morning of the game. This time, they managed to make it to kick-off but there were moments when you wondered whether we would hear the final whistle.
What started as a light dusting became a white carpet as the first half progressed. The intricate patterns of City’s passing and movement were etched across the pitch like a real-life heat map. The touchline and the perimeter of the penalty area gradually began to disappear, and the bright yellow ball was not quite bright and yellow enough to be clearly visible.
Referee Michael Oliver was in the ear of the ground staff at half-time, at which point there appeared to be a genuine possibility that proceedings could be over.
City did everything in their power to ensure the show would go on, not least because they had a deserved lead to protect. Gundogan’s first goal in six games was difficult to spot from the stands through the teeming snow, but he still timed a side-footed finish perfectly to convert Riyad Mahrez’s low cross. It was all made possible by Joao Cancelo’s latest masterpiece, a 40-yard crossfield pass to find Mahrez out on the right. They are becoming a weekly occurrence.
West Ham had been competitive up to that point, with Michail Antonio crucial to a game plan based around deep defending and direct counter-attacks, but David Moyes’ side were still conceding plenty of chances. Mahrez, who had already seen a goal disallowed for a clear offside, hit the woodwork before the break while Ben Johnson had to acrobatically clear a goal-bound Gabriel Jesus shot off the line.
The interval was extended by 10 minutes to give City’s ground staff a chance to clear the surface and, helpfully, the skies began to clear. By the time both sets of players re-emerged, there was only one patch left to clear in the middle of the pitch. The applause for their efforts came from all four corners of the Etihad and was the only thing about this game that could be described as ‘warm’.
Once back underway, City pushed on for the second that would kill off the contest but only really came close when Antonio misplaced a pass deep in their half, allowing Gundogan to spring a counter-attack. The impressive Raheem Sterling’s low cross behind West Ham’s retreating defence set up Jesus to finish, only for Aaron Cresswell to slide in and clear off the line, cracking his back against the post in the process.
That was the best City could muster until the final stages, but West Ham could not conjure up much more. Ederson was only called into action by a powerful Declan Rice strike from range, which was punched away awkwardly but without consequence.
Fernandinho fared better late on, picking up Gundogan’s pass after neat work by City on a short corner and arrowing low in the bottom left-hand corner. Guardiola finally had the two-goal cushion his side deserved, though it would be cut in half with the final kick, and Lanzini’s half-volley that looped out of Ederson’s reach.
City had been caught cold, though after this fifth impressive win on the spin in all competitions, you sense their season is starting to heat up.