Thursday, November 4, 2021

AND HERE COME THE BELGIANS


In a performance that started well, turned rocky for a short while but eventually evened itself out, City manoeuvred ahead of PSG to the top of Group A and onto the verge of a ninth consecutive group stage qualification. A far cry from the Groups of Death under Roberto Mancini when Madrids followed Bayerns like limousines pulling away from an environment conference.    

There were more titbits to take away from the game, however, than a simple wrapping up of the Belgian champions on a 9-2 aggregate score from the two ties. These days, watching Guardiola's men approach the challenge of group stage football in this cup of all cups is a nerveless affair. You sit safe in the knowledge that this is a club, with players, an attitude and a proven track record, which allows for hiccups along the way but lets little else derail them.

This new feel really kicked forward under the likes of Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, proven performers at the very highest levels, utterly unphased by the sorts of opponents the City of old would have dissolved in front of like an Angel Delight left out in a heavy downpour of acid rain. 

Back in the days of the groups of Death, certain players began to work on City's deathly mentality.

Here, a slapstick Bruges equaliser off John Stones' nose threatened briefly to make City look a little daft, after their undressing by Palace at the weekend. Where are the strikers, where are the goals coming from, we prepared to shriek at anyone who would listen. But goals did come, many of them assisted by the twinkling toes of Joao Cancelo, busy having another of his rollercoaster seasons that encompass the good, the bad and the perky. The Portuguese can be an infuriating watch, with his uncontrolled charges into the hinterland and flicks and tricks that would go nicely in the opposition box but look a little risky in our own. Nevertheless, he is a unique weapon in City's armoury, another Pep invention, an all-purpose right back playing on the left but actually being used as a marauding wide midfielder and false pivot. Here his three assists were bolstered by a shot onto the post to go with his goal in Belgium. The kid just doesn't know when to stop and that's probably a good thing.

Talking of falsity, people still ask the question. With every goalless shambles a la Palace there comes a new reckoning, a new wave of opprobrium for allowing a real live Champions League contender to come out of the new season blocks without a proper Number Nine.  

Sterling's faint whiff of a return to form against Palace was given more strength against Bruges, as the goalless striker finally popped one in, albeit from two yards out. Is his touch returning? Does he look slightly more ready for action? Can you notice slight changes in his control and confidence or is it just hope playing its feeble games with our eyesight?


Sterling finally finishes one off after going from February with just two goals (it's now November).

The question remains about this squad's ability to put more difficult games to bed. Against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge blanket control prevailed; at Anfield a similar hold only delivered a single point after Liverpool struggled free of the vice like grip they had been in; at the Parc des Princes similar control led to an albeit unlucky two-goal defeat. 

Eager eyes will watch City's efforts at the weekend to see if any patterns are actually emerging. While United have been mostly an uncoached shambles under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, their record against City is fine and Guardiola will not want that to continue in 2021-22, a season where City have stronger challengers in both the Premier League and the Champions League. 

In the meantime, bask in the knowledge that, from Roger Palmer through to Phil Foden, City's grip on Belgium's finest remains almost total. The stats tell the story of a ride worth taking.








 

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