The Manchester City Train Keeps Running Opponents Over
1:36 PM EST on February 16, 2022
When Manchester City beat Norwich City 4-0 on Saturday, no one should have batted an eye. City is the current leader in the Premier League, and though Norwich has showed signs of life in recent weeks, the Canaries are still a prime relegation candidate. A great team beating a mediocre team by a substantial score-line? Business as usual on the domestic side of things. What Manchester City did to Sporting CP in the first Champions League knockout round, though, is something that should strike fear into the rest of Europe's elite.
Sporting is not Norwich. The Lions are currently in second place in the Portuguese first division, and they made it out of a tricky Champions League group at the expense of Borussia Dortmund. Sure, they were a distant second from undefeated powerhouse Ajax, but there's no shame in that; Ajax is just that good. It would be hard to envision Sporting beating Manchester City—despite the Portuguese side's sterling record against English teams in two-legged competitions—but a tough first leg challenge at home followed by a respectable but hefty loss in Manchester seemed a doable task. That is not what happened.
That City won 5-0 is eye-popping, particularly given two complementary facts: the game was played in Portugal, and the away goals rule is no more. As the other game on Tuesday showed, the away teams have less incentive now to push for goals while on the road, at least in theory. With how City is playing right now, though, even a half-throttle effort was more than enough to dispatch Sporting with ease: on the day, City had 15 shots, six on target, and five goals, while Sporting only managed a pitiful three wayward shots on just 36 percent possession.
Even those stats do not paint the full picture. The demolition got started early, with Riyad Mahrez notching in City's opener at seven minutes in:
If there was one City player who felt especially comfortable in Portugal and specifically against Sporting, it was former Benfica player Bernardo Silva. Ten minutes after Mahrez's opener, there was Silva with a half-volley goal that looks even more incredible on replay; the ball bounces just before he makes flush contact with it, sending it careening off the crossbar and in:
Silva's strike effectively ended the game as a competitive contest, and Sporting definitely played like it also ended the tie. The Portuguese side capitulated at 2-0 down, so it wasn't particularly shocking that Phil Foden got City's third in the 30th minute ...
... or that Silva got his second just before halftime to make it 4-0:
City played the second half exactly like a team up 4-0 should: players slowed everything down, played safely and in Sporting's half, and bled the clock without expending too much energy. Well, that is except for Raheem Sterling's 58th minute goal, which might have been the best of the bunch:
While it's true that Sporting is no one's idea of an elite European side, that City was able to go away from home and so thoroughly dismantle their opponents as if they were a bottom-feeding Premier League side is still one of the most impressive knockout performances in recent memory. While PSG and Real Madrid were locked in a stalemate, and as other competition favorites surely watched on, City made their case for why they should be considered the class of the continent.
Who can beat this City team? PSG has enough talent; Bayern Munich is always a threat, and it too has a less heralded first-round opponent in RB Salzburg; Chelsea beat City in the Champions League final, so one can never count out the Blues; Manchester United has Cristiano Ronaldo, who does black magic in the Champions League; and Pep Guardiola himself said on Tuesday that "pain in the ass" Liverpool can beat City on any given day; the Pool Boys will simply have to get by Inter first.
Really, though, City's biggest opponent is always going to be itself. Guardiola has at times over thought things in big European matches. Just last May, he went without a defensive midfielder from the start against Chelsea in the final, and the move backfired. If City players are as locked in for every knockout game as they were against Sporting, perhaps even some managerial shenanigans won't be enough to stop the machine. The Champions League trophy is the only thing that has evaded Manchester City during this current run of excellence, but there's no better way to start the latest push than with a 5-0 planting of the flag.