Kevin De Bruyne made a dramatic return to action as Manchester City eased back to winning ways with a convincing 3-1 victory over Watford.
The Belgian did not score but was the main architect as the Premier League leaders overcame Sunday’s rare blip at Crystal Palace with strikes from Raheem Sterling – after less than a minute – Sergio Aguero and a Christian Kabasele own goal.
De Bruyne had been highly doubtful for the clash at the Etihad Stadium after being carried off in the goalless draw at Selhurst Park – which ended City’s record-breaking run of 18 successive wins – but he played as if he had not been hurt at all.
Watford were outplayed by City for a second time this season, following a 6-0 hammering in September, but did manage a late consolation from Andre Gray on a cold and wet night.
The result did not seem in doubt from the moment Sterling prodded home the opener after just 38 seconds.
Leroy Sane was the early inspiration, bursting down the left and pulling the ball back for the England international to tap in his 18th of the season.
It was as if City had been affronted by the Palace result and were determined to take it out on the Hornets yet again.
Moments later John Stones, back in the side after 12 games out injured, should have doubled the lead but he lofted a straightforward chance over.
City’s seemingly inevitable second goal came after 13 minutes, this time De Bruyne delivering from the right and the unfortunate Kabasele sliding in to flick the ball beyond Heurelho Gomes.
De Bruyne went close to netting the third himself as Gomes tipped his free-kick onto the bar.
Further chances came as De Bruyne twice picked out Aguero but the Argentinian was denied by Gomes while David Silva – returning after missing four of the last five games – blazed over.
Watford, to their credit, did carve out some good openings. The best of them fell to Gray after he was played through by Etienne Capoue, but Ederson diverted his low shot wide.
City came out after the break looking for more goals, with Aguero and Nicolas Otamendi heading wide.
It came as no surprise when City did make it 3-0, De Bruyne again causing trouble with a wicked ball from the right. Gomes could not keep hold and gifted a simple chance for Aguero to poke in.
De Bruyne’s efforts deserved a goal and he again went close to getting one with a low drive that flashed by the outside of the post. It proved his final act, however, as he was substituted moments later.
Watford were already doomed to their seventh defeat in nine games but at least had the final say when Andre Carillo crossed from the right and Gray turned in.
They also wanted a late penalty when Roberto Pereyra went down under an Otamendi challenge but nothing was given.