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22 Sep 2011

Owen Hargreaves enjoyed the perfect debut with a fabulous goal and injury-free 57-minute stint as Manchester City beat holders Birmingham City to reach the Carling Cup fourth round.

Hargreaves, signed on a free transfer after three injury-beset years, drilled a 22-yard beauty to open the scoring.

Mario Balotelli sealed an easy win from Pablo Zabaleta's cross on 38 minutes.

Birmingham rarely looked like troubling the hosts, Curtis Davies seeing their best chance cleared off the line.

It was a tame way for the visitors' hold on the Carling Cup to come to an end, with Chris Hughton's side surrendering the trophy with a toothless display.

But in truth this match was all about Hargreaves' return, even overshadowing Kolo Toure's comeback after serving a six-month ban for a failed drugs test.

The 30-year-old midfielder was excellent.

Eyebrows were raised when he was signed on a free transfer by City after his release by Manchester United given his injury problems over the past three years, but over the course of nearly an hour in this match he cast many of those doubts aside.

By surviving the first six minutes Hargreaves matched the total amount of playing time he had managed previously in virtually three years - and by scoring his first goal since April 2008 he set the hosts on their way to a fifth win of the season in all competitions.

It was a terrific strike, too, latching on to a loose ball and lashing his shot like an arrow into the top corner from 22 yards out.

And that was not all Hargreaves contributed. He was busy, accurate with his passing and a constant menace to Birmingham at both ends of the pitch. Many more performances like this and calls for him to be not only a regular for Manchester City but also England will not be too far away.

He has much to prove before that, though, and this win was not all down to the former England international's return.

Despite 11 changes from the side that drew with Fulham at the weekend, the hosts were always in control.

Balotelli, supported from a deeper-lying attacking position by Carlos Tevez, was lively, and it was he who grabbed the hosts' second, applying a neat finish to Zabaleta's cross on 38 minutes.

And Toure made his mark too, the Ivorian clearing off the line after Romanian goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon had dropped Jean Beausejour's free-kick, offering Curtis Davies the chance to send an overhead kick towards City's otherwise empty goal.

It was Birmingham's only attack in the first half of their first game in this competition since they stunned Arsenal in last season's final - and despite a slightly improved second-half performance, it was by far the closest the visitors came to breaching the hosts' defences.

In contrast, Manchester City continued to threaten and only two fine saves from Colin Doyle in the Birmingham goal, from Tevez and then Toure, kept the scoreline respectable.

And so it was that a Manchester City side containing Nedum Onuoha, appearing for City for the first time since April 2010, coasted home.


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