If Manchester City can keep VAR onside maybe their name will finally be on the trophy.
Pep Guardiola’s side certainly showed in a 5-0 demolition of Sporting teams that they have all the tools needed to go all the way, but that has been the case for the last five years yet the Champions League still eludes one of the most dominant in Premier League history. The manager is bored of hearing about it but too often incredible consistency in the league has been met with an erratic European exit.
Can this year finally be the year? We have been here (and beyond) too many times in recent years to say. What was remarkable about the win over Sporting though was how VAR gave City what they deserved – in a good way.
The technology has been at the heart of two painful exits, its absence contributing to their defeat to Liverpool in 2018 before Raheem Sterling’s winner against Tottenham was so cruelly (but correctly) ruled out. The way VAR has been used in the Premier League in City games has added to the irritation and frustration.
Here at the Estadio Jose Alvalade, however, came a change.
There wasn’t a soul in the stadium that thought Riyad Mahrez had put City ahead in the seventh minute, with even Kevin De Bruyne accepting he was offside when he knocked the ball back to him from the edge of the pitch.
Only he wasn’t. A lengthy VAR check that had seemed baffling suddenly produced a fundamental change in the game, with City and their delirious fans as their opponents tried to work out how it had happened. Guardiola’s side sensed blood though, and brutally ended the tie within 45 minutes with three further wonderful strikes.
First came Bernardo with a strike of breathtaking quality, smashing in so emphatically on the half-volley as the ball dropped from a corner that it was only the net that stopped it reaching Manchester. It wo n’t match the beauty of his volley of him at Villa Park, but what a collection of goals he is acquiring and what a season he is having.
A minute before the break he scored his 10th goal of the campaign – already double the number he managed last season – when a terrific ball over the top was cutely brought down by Raheem Sterling, who laid it back for his teammate.
That made it 4-0, after the excellent Mahrez had bamboozled the Sporting defense and tauntingly rolled a ball into the box that found Phil Foden for the third. City fans sang about not really being here and there were a few home supporters that headed for an early exit.
In just 45 minutes, a night that had plenty of potential for an upset – a confident team with an impressive coach and a home crowd ready to unsettle the former Benfica players in the away team – had been killed as a contest. Rather than showing the scars that their last visit to this stadium caused when Lyon shocked them in the 2020 quarter-final, City ruthlessly sliced through Sporting to mean they have nothing to worry about for the second leg that takes place four days after the derby.
It also turned the second half into an exhibition, although as is typical of this team there was no letting up.
So demoralized were the Portuguese side that Bernardo headed right through the keeper at the beginning of the second half to celebrate a hat-trick, only for it to be ruled out for offside. The reprieve was only temporary however, as Sterling picked up the ball 25 yards out and whipped it into the top corner.
The final half-hour brought no more goals but was barely less chastening for the hosts, with City not relinquishing an inch of control in the game even with the tie over. A loose dribble from Sterling brought an angry reaction from Guardiola on the touchline.
If a last-16 thumping does not count for anything more than kudos, it will enhance the view that this team has to be considered as one of the favorites. As the Sporting manager had predicted before the game, nothing could be done to stop them.
More importantly, it will convince Guardiola and his players further that they are doing everything they need to be able to finally go all the way.
City’s coach spoke when he arrived at the Etihad of the importance of history in the competition, suggesting that clubs needed to get used to progressing through the knockout rounds before they could really be considered as contenders. At times, it has been hard to escape the conclusion that the Blues have been naive in the competition.
Last year marked real progress though, with the consistency and control in domestic games carrying over into a tremendous run to reach the final for the first time, keeping cool heads to dispatch Dortmund and PSG in the later rounds.
And while City have been curiously generous in defense this year compared with their efforts in the Premier League, the same mood and style of the team that has been present for every other game this season was seen in Lisbon. No wonder Guardiola reckons the harmony in the squad has never been better when there is so much confidence on the pitch to add to the quality.
As chaotic as it can seem, VAR also improves control when used correctly as it ensures that every team gets what they deserve. City can struggle to respond to setbacks, but there should be fewer setbacks if incorrect decisions are removed from the game.
If the technology is used as well in the rest of the competition, that will be one fewer obstacle in City’s way as they look to go one step further this year.
As long as they don’t beat themselves, City’s path to success has rarely looked clearer.
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