ALBION’S hopes of pulling off a shock at the title-chasers were blitzed by City’s first-half goal spree.
The Baggies got off to the worst possible start when they conceded two goals in the opening ten minutes, with Pablo Zabaleta and Sergio Aguero finding the net.
However, Pepe Mel’s men harshly had a Matej Vydra goal disallowed for offside in-between and then reduced the arrears in the 16th minute thanks to Graham Dorrans’ well-taken second goal in four games.
Albion’s comeback attempts looked dead and buried when Martin Demichelis bundled home City’s third from a 36th-minute corner.
The result never looked in doubt from that point but the Baggies, to their credit, kept plugging away, even though a second goal, which would have set up an interesting finale, proved elusive.
Both teams had plenty to fight for at the Etihad Stadium – but for vastly different reasons. Third-placed City’s aim was to close the nine-point gap on leaders Liverpool while the Baggies were hoping to extend their three-point cushion on the drop-zone.
Mel made two changes as he pitted his wits against Manuel Pellegrini for the first time since his Real Betis team beat the now-City’s boss’ Malaga side 3-0 in La Liga last season.
Craig Dawson came in for Gareth McAuley, who suffered a calf injury in training, while Billy Jones was handed his first start for two months following a hamstring problem in place of the benched Steven Reid.
James Morrison was also among the subs after missing the Tottenham draw nine days ago with an ankle problem.
Pellegrini made three changes from the 2-2 home draw with Sunderland last Wednesday. Aleksandar Kolarov, James Milner and Alvaro Negredo all dropped to the bench as Gael Clichy, David Silva and Edin Dzeko earned recalls.
Mel opted for a 3-5-2 formation, with Dawson, Jonas Olsson and Liam Ridgewell deployed as centre-halves and Jones and skipper Chris Brunt as wing-backs.
But the visitors were behind inside three minutes. Ridgewell’s headed clearance from Samir Nasri’s right-wing centre flew straight to Aguero, whose ferocious volley was well saved by Ben Foster. However, Zabaleta pounced on the rebound and planted a diving header inside the far corner.
Albion had their backs to the wall again two minutes later and Ridgewell did well to block Silva’s close-range effort before Aguero blasted a fine chance over from Nasri’s pull-back.
But the Baggies were mightily unlucky not to be level after their first attack in the sixth minute. From Stephane Sessegnon’s lay-off, Jones centred for Vydra to tap home, only for the effort to be ruled out for offside. The referee’s assistant’s adjudged Jones to be the offender, but TV replays suggested he was level.
City made the most of their let-off by surging 2-0 up in the tenth minute. Aguero tried his luck from 25 yards and gave Foster no chance with a perfectly-placed right-footed drive.
Shell-shocked Albion regrouped and Sessegnon was a whisker away with a 25-yard rocket which whistled just past the right-hand post.
But the Baggies DID create a lifeline on 16 by making it 2-1 with a stunning breakaway goal. Ridgewell dispossessed Zabaleta before feeding Sessegnon, who teed up Dorrans. The Scotland international dinked the ball over Gael Clichy with his right foot before drilling in off the right-hand post with his left on the half-volley.
Albion were now stamping their authority on proceedings and after an incredibly open beginning to the match, they shored things up and slowly began to frustrate City.
However, after a long lull in goalmouth action, City restored their two-goal lead in the 36th minute. Nasri’s corner was flicked on by Javi Garcia and the unmarked Demichelis bundled home from six yards.
The goal seemed to lift the weight of pressure on the home side’s shoulders and Edin Dzeko soon tried his luck from 30 yards, only for his effort to fly straight at Foster.
Yet it was Albion who finished the half on top. On 43, it took an acrobatic block by City skipper Vincent Kompany to divert Sessegnon’s ten-yard shot just over Joe Hart’s bar from Jones’ low centre.
The Baggies kept up the pressure with a succession of set-pieces but could not fashion another goal before the half-time whistle.
After a slow start to the second 45, City began to build up a head of steam and Dawson had to produce two vital blocks to prevent Zabaleta and Nasri troubling Foster’s goal.
Dawson was in the right place at the right time again on 58 to slide in and deny Nasri a tap-in from Zabaleta’s centre after a long spell of City keep-ball.
Mel made his first change on the hour-mark, replacing Vydra with Victor Anichebe.
After a goal-laden first half, the second period was proving a big disappointment.
There were also worrying signs for City when Silva, after a lengthy spell of treatment, had to be stretchered off and replaced by Milner in the 70th minute.
When play restarted, Albion threatened twice in quick succession. Morgan Amalfitano saw his 20-yard volley from Anichebe’s lay-off clip Garcia and fly straight to Hart. Seconds later, the England keeper had to dive full stretch to his right to push away another Amalfitano effort from similar distance.
City then broke upfield and sub Stevan Jovetic wasn’t too far away with a 20-yard strike.
Back came Albion and Hart had to make an awkward clearance under pressure from sub Saido Berahino to keep out Ridgewell’s cross-cum-shot nine minutes from time.
With Albion searching for goals, it was inevitable City would exploit the space at the back and the visitors were relieved to see Dzeko curl wide from 18 yards after neat build-up play by Nasri and Jovetic.
The Baggies had to play out the dying stages with ten men when a knee problem ended Ridgewell’s evening in the 90th minute, with Mel having used all of his subs.
CITY (4-4-2): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany (c), Demichelis, Clichy; Nasri, Garcia, Fernandinho, Silva (Milner 70); Dzeko (Kolarov 90), Aguero (Jovetic 63). Subs not used: Pantilimon gk), Lescott, Richards, Negredo.
ALBION (3-5-2): Foster; Dawson, Olsson, Ridgewell; Jones, Amalfitano, Mulumbu (Morrison 84), Dorrans, Brunt (c); Sessegnon (Berahino 76), Vydra (Anichebe 60). Subs not used: Myhill (gk), Yacob, Lugano, Reid.
GOALS: CITY – Zabaleta (3), Aguero (10), Demichelis (36). ALBION – Dorrans (16).
BOOKINGS: CITY – Demichelis (foul 22).
REFEREE: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
ALBION STARMAN: Billy Jones.