It has been a long and difficult couple of months in a Manchester City shirt for Raheem Sterling, though the hope will be that this first goal since August represents a fresh start.
After coming off the substitutes’ bench to add the third in this comfortable win over Club Brugge, Sterling is now the fourth highest English scorer in Champions League history, his 22 goals behind only the tallies of Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes and Frank Lampard.
To describe City as dominant before the opening goal would be an understatement. Brugge struggled to string more than a handful of passes together, instead retreating to the edge of their own penalty area, apparently hunkering down for the night. It felt like City could be ahead in half that time.
They were. Joao Cancelo went close first, smacking the upright after a delicately threaded through ball by Jack Grealish. The ball was recycled and, after Phil Foden was initially denied by an impressive one-handed Simon Mignolet, it was sent out wide to Cancelo again. While Mignolet wandered too close to his near post, Foden peeled off for the far, correctly anticipating that his left-back’s low cross would find him in plenty of space to apply the finish.
A quarter-of-an-hour gone, Brugge could not have made things any easier for City but that would quickly change. Not only did they eventually become more compact they also began to counter-attack. Their second meaningful foray into City’s half, only two minutes after Foden’s breakthrough, resulted in an equaliser and a moment to forget for John Stones.
The own goal was not Stones’ fault. He could not do much to get out of the way of the ball as it bounced up off Bernardo Silva, hit him in the head and looped in. Brugge earned that slice of luck, though, for forcing City onto the back foot. Charles De Ketelaere’s downward header was almost converted by Hans Vanaken, moments before De Ketelaere kept the move alive to force the ball in off Stones.
From there on until the break, Brugge were the better side. City still dominated possession but without penetration, unable to break through.
While Brugge were precise, City were sloppy. They could not be as aimless in the second half but they were fortunate to see De Ketelaere take a leaf out of their book by shanking a presentable chance wide, having been played in behind nine minutes after the restart.
That, finally, was the wake-up call required. Within seconds, City were up the other end and though Mahrez was frustrated when no team-mate was on hand to convert a low, right-wing cross to the far post, he was determined not to make the same mistake. The Algerian was alive and alert as Cancelo sent a return ball in from the other flank to knock a free header in.
Brugge’s resistance began to fall away. City returned to being the dominant force of the opening stages. Gabriel Jesus replaced Grealish, and grabbed the fourth with the final kick, though it was Sterling who had the main impact from the bench.
His goal was a simple finish, really. It was made by a delightful Foden pass to play in Ilkay Gundogan, who squared for Sterling to convert.
It was the type of goal that Sterling specialised in during Guardiola’s first title-winning season, when he was a central figure in City’s masterful attack. He will hope this is the start of him regaining that status.
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