This was a contest for 31 minutes, and a fairly good one at that. Then Raheem Sterling sublimely beat Angus Gunn with the first goal of his hat-trick and, after that, any doubt over the outcome was purely for dreamers. Manchester City do not give games up from there and with every passing week the prospect of a title battle looks more remote.
Pep Guardiola may outwardly fear one but that would require his team to make a misstep, and then at least one more. They have taken 43 points from the last 45 available: it is not exciting fare for most onlookers outside their circle but it is controlled, clinical, consummate and often crushing. The margin of victory reflected their domination but they would not have been flattered to leave with even more.
Norwich’s fight against relegation will not stand or fall on nights like this, even though taking a scalp of City’s size would have done wonders for their momentum. Dean Smith might rue the moment, 18 minutes in and with the game goalless, when Grant Hanley headed Pierre Lees-Melou’s cross against the inside of a post. It came amid a ding-dong set of early exchanges but, even then, the sense lingered that the home side’s best chance of creating a serious contest had passed.
City had already struck the woodwork themselves through Bernardo Silva, while the otherwise excellent Ilkay Gündogan fluffed a free header. That was the problem for Norwich: their clear chances would always be few, while it took City little effort to turn on the taps. A helping hand was certainly not necessary, so, while Sterling’s curled opener from 18 yards was superbly taken, it was galling that he was given possession by Max Aarons’ failure to cut out Kyle Walker’s cross.
“For his confidence it will be massive,” Guardiola said of his scorer. “The first goal was brilliant: when Raheem executes without thinking he is excellent. In general he was active and made good touches.”
The other two of consequence were tap-ins, nodding City’s third across the line from a yard after Rúben Dias had headed back across and then following up after Gunn had saved his penalty in the dying seconds. Smith was furious that the spot kick had been awarded, calling Andre Marriner’s decision to punish Hanley’s challenge on Liam Delap “pathetic” and saying he had taken it up with him in person after full-time, but Norwich’s goal difference appears so far gone that it will matter little.
They were Sterling’s first goals of the calendar year, and the hat-trick was his first since the 5-0 win at Brighton in July 2020. City have rampaged through the last two seasons without the forward needing to be at his most potent and, if this proves the catalyst for a concerted spell of form, there will be even less hope for everyone else.
Norwich could still hold some at half-time here and, at one goal down, Smith would have wished them to stay competitive for as long as possible. But the game was sealed within 90 seconds of the restart when, in his words, the hosts “forgot our principles”.
It was more that they got lost in the muck: Phil Foden had met Gündogan’s cutback with an awkward effort off his thigh that Gunn repelled, and then battled to dig the ball back out again as it squirmed around the six-yard box. Eventually he squeezed in a shot that deflected off Brandon Williams and, in crossing the line by a foot, rendered Hanley’s last-ditch clearance futile.
“We started the second half on the front foot and it helped us a lot to score in the first minutes,” Guardiola said. “Our behaviour and concentration was good. All the time it looks easy but it is difficult to do our job and we did it again.”
Just as they have done it again, and again, and again. Guardiola was again at pains to talk up the threat of Liverpool, who are 12 points behind with two games in hand. “They won’t drop many points for the quality they have,” he said. “It’s the best squad they have had in the last decade. We’ll have to win a lot of games.” Perhaps, but they are making that look easy.