Manchester City have cruised through to the group stages of the Champions League by beating Romanian giants, Steaua Bucharest, 6-0 on aggregate.
The second leg of the tie however, was not one to remember. In the build-up, the game had often been referred to as a ‘dead rubber’, and it certainly lived up to it’s billing. In truth, the match felt more like a Joe Hart testimonial game, with the City faithful cheering his every touch. That was all they had to get excited about, up until Fabian Delph put The Blues ahead in the 54th minute. Delph’s header turned out to be the decisive goal in the match, as City won the match 1-0.
The hard work had already been done of course, as Pep Guardiola’s men romped to a convincing 5-0 win in Bucharest. With this in mind, the managers of both sides saw fit to ring the changes, with Steaua manager, Lauren?iu Reghecampf, admitting that there was no question about who would qualify. This undoubtedly led to a clear drop-off in the quality on display.
Guardiola made nine changes to the side that won in Bucharest, giving Joe Hart and Yaya Touré their first minutes of the season, with Hart being named captain in what looks to be his farewell game. There were also first starts of the season for the central midfield pairing of Fabian Delph and Fernando, with Kelechi Iheanacho leading the line after his impressive cameo against Stoke at the weekend. Meanwhile, just four of Steaua’s starting eleven from the first leg kept their places.
Many fans were eager to see if Guardiola would be tempted into giving some of the younger players the experience of playing in the Champions League, with a number of EDS players featuring prominently in pre-season. Pep duly obliged, handing Pablo Maffeo his first ever start for City in a competitive game. The 19 year-old full-back benefitted from a slight knock to first choice right-back, Bacary Sagna, while Pablo Zabaleta was rested after playing the full 90 minutes at the Bet365 Stadium on Saturday. Tosin Adarabioyo and Angeliño, aged 18 and 19 respectively, were named as substitutes and were both brought on for their Champions League debuts in the 60th minute.
The opening stages of the game were dominated by City, with Steaua unable to gain a foothold in the game due to City’s relentless pressing. Kelechi Iheanacho was the first to test Valentin Cojocaru in the Steaua goal, before Yaya Touré failed to hit the target with a free kick from a tough angle. City were clearly missing their usual midfield trio of Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne however, with Fernando, Delph and Touré unable to replicate the sharp transitions from midfield into attack that we saw in the first leg.
Despite this, it was very refreshing to see Guardiola out on the touchline berating his players and trying to find a solution. Most managers would have sat back and simply enjoyed the game with their team 5-0 up on aggregate, but Pep is a perfectionist and desperately wants to win every game.
Steaua’s owner, Gigi Becali, was understandably angry with the way that his team defended in the first leg, and demanded a much better defensive showing in the second leg. Becali got exactly what he desired; Steaua, in stark contrast to last week’s game, were compact and well organised. Unfortunately, for anyone watching, it lead to an appalling spectacle.
The first real chance of the match came in the 54th minute, as Iheanacho played a delicious through ball to Fabian Delph, who saw his shot turned wide by Cojocaru. The energetic midfielder made amends just a minute later, turning in a header from a Jesus Navas cross, finally putting the City fans, and everyone else watching, out of their misery.
Iheanacho, who was one of the better players for City on the night, pulled up in the 75th minute with a muscular injury. It caused a genuine fright among fans as Kelechi looked like he passed out momentarily, with a Steaua defender rushing to put him in the recovery position. He was carried off on a stretcher and replaced by Fernandinho – hopefully, the injury isn’t as bad as it first seemed.
The only reason to remember this game, would be for the fact that it is likely to be Joe Hart’s final one for the club. He moved to City when he was 19, and has enjoyed a fantastic ten years in Manchester. The City fans made their feelings towards Hart known, celebrating every save like it were a goal, and singing his name whilst giving him a standing ovation during the 65th minute. Hart looked visibly moved, before pointing at the City badge. It was fitting that he secured a clean sheet on his final game for the club, and he will have the best wishes of all City fans in his future endeavours.
For Manchester City as a whole, this game was mostly irrelevant. The focus now turns to tomorrow’s draw for the group stages of the Champions League, as the club seek to get their hands on the trophy for the first time.