Writing this report without playfully referring to the storm that left Manchester gasping for air on Tuesday evening or without dissecting the name of our German visitors Borussia Mönchengladbach for the purpose of pun may prove to be difficult, but I think I can do it.
Europe, we’re Glad to be… no. City certainly cooked up a storm on… ah, forget it. Let’s just say that this was our most complete performance of the season – a display brimming with intelligence and intensity. Guardiola’s message, after watching his side make a habit of taking their foot off the pedal in the second half of games this term: I don’t care if he’s dead, keep stamping.
City did not just stamp, they kicked, punched and sunk their teeth into the Bundesliga team who just couldn’t wait to get out of Manchester after a horrific three-day stay. “The weather was terrible and our hosts were most unwelcoming,” Gladbach boss André Schubert may have written in a Trip Advisor review – his side were most definitely dead after this encounter, the victims of a 4-0 mauling at the Etihad Stadium.
Leading the assault was Sergio Agüero. Banned for three league games after elbowing, but not actually elbowing, Winston Reid in a 3-1 win over West Ham United last month. The FA had described the Argentine’s challenge as “excessive in force and brutal” earlier in the day. A similar vocabulary could be used to recount Agüero’s performance in this game, the 28-year-old netted his second European hat-trick of the season to steer us to a convincing victory.
His first came in the 8th minute when he showed great anticipation to nip in ahead of Andreas Christensen to turn in a fizzing Aleksandar Kolarov cross. It was two 20 minutes later when debutante İlkay Gündoğan was tripped inside the box. Agüero had scuffed two penalties in the qualifier against Steaua Bucharest but calmly slotted past Yann Sommer here. With the game waning into nothingness, Sergio brought some life back into the occasion 13 minutes from time as he skated onto an excellent pass from Raheem Sterling and rounded the goalkeeper for his third.
Injury has prevented Agüero from having a fair tussle with Barcelona’s Luis Suárez for the title of Europe’s best striker in previous campaigns. But, injury permitting, Sergio looks better equipped than ever to hit the a goal tally that truly reflects his world-class ability. “His talent in the box is natural,” says the manager, even it appears unnatural to most of us.
Another stand-out performer was İlkay Gündoğan who made his first start since becoming Guardiola’s first signing as City manager in June. In previous seasons the absence of David Silva would have induced dread and scuppered plans like a phone call from an unknown number the day after a one night stand, but the German slotted into the team as if he’d been there for years. Gündoğan is a man of many talents; he can be direct, he can hold, and he can orchestrate from any position in the midfield. In this tie, it was a display that brought back memories of Frank Lampard in 2004/2005 – the way he drove at Gladbach’s defenders and popped up on the edge of the box gave City fans a thrilling glimpse of what’s to come.
Pep was as impressed as the rest of us with his new midfielder. “He played so, so intelligently, he’s an amazing player. He has quality with the ball. He’s intelligent, is a worker, can dribble and arrive in the box at the right moment. He’s going to help us a lot this year.” No wonder Guardiola was so desperate to land him this summer.
Who else was brilliant? Well, everyone really. John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi have formed a partnership in the centre of defence so authoritative and composed that Vincent Kompany will struggle to wrestle himself back in there. Fernandinho was superb, too (when isn’t he?) and deserves so much credit for the freedom he affords our more attacking-minded midfielders. When Gündoğan, Silva and De Bruyne are all fully fit, don’t assume that the Brazilian will be the player to make way.
And then there’s Raheem Sterling. After the summer he had, trust me, I’m going to take every opportunity to heap the praise on him. ‘Raz’ was the player of the second half, slicing Gladbach’s defence open with a delicious left-footed through ball and showing great intent to get to the byline. Sterling is not just a speedy dribbler, but also a player with great vision and a fantastic understanding of when to hold and release the ball. Watching him play this season has been pleasant to say the least.
New man Leroy Sané will be hopeful of replicating the form Sterling has hit this term. The 20-year-old winger made another bright cameo and set up Kelechi Iheanacho for City’s fourth and final goal. I, like most City fans, am looking forward to seeing more of the speedy German.
But enough about individuals. The major difference this year is that City finally look like a team that no longer has to rely on a single moment of magic from one player to win a game. Rewind to December of last year when Gladbach first visited the Etihad and it was Sterling’s individual excellence that rescued us from an upset. We won that game 4-2 after being 2-1 down at half-time, but the overall performance was poor. Agüero though, was the man on the scoresheet in this game – but his goals were the product of smart team play and organisation. The team look so well drilled, so ready to fight for one another – that, more than anything, will be at the root of any success we have this season.