As John Stones, a player valued by Pep Guardiola at an English record breaking £47.5m for his ability to pass comfortably and efficiently from the back, reveled at the final whistle, Joe Hart, a player deemed dispensable by the new manager for his inability to do the same, clamped a frown between his molars. For one this 5-0 extermination of Steaua Bucharest provided a taste of things to come. For the other, a glimpse of what he could soon be missing. Running over to his friend and fellow Englishman with an enthusiastic arm round the shoulder, Stones was met by a brick wall; a broken man clearly distraught at his current situation. To think that the bloke – the City fan (I don’t care if he actually supports Shrewsbury), the £600k signing we moulded into England’s number one, the guy who always thanks the fans for their support – is going through shit brings a frog to the throat. This iconic photograph supplied a somber undertone to what actually was a fantastic night for Manchester City.
The club and Hart want a speedy resolution. Sevilla and Everton are the front-runners for Hart’s signature, but aware that his next move could be the most important of his career, the 29-year-old would prefer a loan move on such short notice. City have already moved to sign Claudio Bravo from Barcelona and the deal is expected to be made official once Marc-Andre Ter Stegen returns from injury. In the midst of this ongoing goalkeeping saga though, it’s possible that we could have won this Champions League qualifier without a body between the sticks.
Though certainly not our best result, this may well have been our best performance in the last 10 years. Bucharest are no Real Madrid and went into the game as clear underdogs, but City showed a ruthlessness they lacked under Pellegrini and, like a kid flicking roadkill with a stick, continued to prod the lifeless Romanians until the referee blew the final whistle. There was solidity at the back, there was fluidity among the forwards, there was pressing, chasing, intercepting, slick passing, accurate shooting, exceptional movement. You name it. There was everything on show from City at the National Arena in Bucharest, all so flawlessly executed. On a Tuesday night after a long day’s work, this was a watch more satisfying than a Blue Whale spewing out of its blowhole in slow-mo on David Attenborough’s Planet Earth.
City’s on-pitch style could be matched only by the attire of Bucharest coach Laurentiu Reghecampf who, in his royal blue blazer and cream chinos, resembled a Stockholm banker. The former Energie Cottbus midfielder said before the game that he was “very confident” about qualifying for the group stages but was forced to accept his side’s biggest ever home defeat. You’re welcome.
Our first goal under Guardiola had come from an excellent piece of trickery from Raheem Sterling and our first Champions League goal under the Spaniard looked destined to come from similar circumstances. Sterling, who in just two games has become the dauntless menace we always wanted him to be, was brought down by a comical tackle in the area. Sergio Agüero stepped up to slot in his second penalty in as many games but saw his effort saved by Florin Nita. Sergio has now missed four of his last five penalties in European games but still has the trust of Guardiola, so long as he’s ‘confident’.
Confident is something Raheem Sterling certainly was not this summer with the Sun newspaper and the taunts of a nation clinging like leeches to his back. Things have changed. Sterling has been the most impressive player of the short Guardiola era. He’s a player who, for his age, demonstrates impressive tactical discipline. Not only is the 21-year-old an accomplished galloper down the right flank, he’s also a work-horse and can be relied upon to contribute to the team defensively as well as in an attacking sense. It’s clear that Raheem has worked on his composure, too; that was obvious in the 12th minute when he wrestled the ball from Alin Tosca and cut inside to set up David Silva who smashed in the first. For the City supporters who have backed Raheem through the last few months, this was a glorious sight.
Agüero had the chance to redeem himself on the 20 minute mark when Nolito was swiped to the ground in another display of horror defending from the hosts. This time the Argentinian proceeded to leather the ball over the bar, but I for one was still applauding the work of Pablo Zabaleta in the build up who raced into the number 10 position and weighted a beautiful Silva-like through ball into his team mate. From defensive midfield one minute to attacking midfield the next, it’s clear that our full-backs will be having some fun this season. A much uglier route one game plan would’ve been enough to see off Bucharest but our commitment to beautiful, one-touch football in this game was encouraging. When in possession there was movement from each and every player, all wanting a touch of the ball. Without it, the side looked desperate to win it back. There was even a moment in the first half where Kevin De Bruyne could be seen retrieving the ball five yards outside his own 18-yard box.
Despite missing two penalties, City never looked as if they would be punished for missed chances and effectively sealed the game just moments before half time when Agüero, set up beautifully by Sterling, opened up his body and fired into the bottom corner.
The second half was all about taking the piss, really. Some of the link up play between Silva, Nolito and De Bruyne was mesmerizing at times. It was proper screw your face up and wave your hand like it’s hot stuff. Conscious that Sterling was about to run away with the best assists tally of the campaign, De Bruyne got in on the act with a superb left footed clip into Nolito who rounded the keeper and tapped in. The fourth was even better as Nolito and Agüero engaged in a game of football ping pong, the ball eventually finding its way behind the Steaua defence and into the back of the net off of Agüero’s right boot.
And if that wasn’t proof enough that Sergio is a top bagsman who scores when he wants, even after missing two pens, he sealed his hat-trick two minutes from time. This one came after a ferocious burst through the Steaua defence, a sign that Sergio still has that burst of pace we thought may have gone missing last term. And then I just sat and stared at the TV, smiling.
If this a sign of things to come then fudge me, we’re in for an exciting season. And I don’t know about you, but I’m optimistic about reaching the group stages.