Three and easy Mahrez leads way for City in Ukraine cruise
You suspect there could be some testing times ahead for Manchester City, but this was not a night for them to be worried by anything as they inflicted a third successive Champions League defeat on Shakhtar Donetsk.
The Ukrainian champions are a decent side but are simply not at the level of City, who breezed through their opening group game with the same ease and coolness they had done when winning here last season. It was a mismatch.
City were not arrogant but they knew they were too good and Shakhtar were simply too worried about what their English opponents could do them to try to expose a patched-up back four. Fernandinho’s first start at centre-back since February was a stroll. He will be hoping more follow.
This is what some complain about in the group stages. There are too many formality victories for the strongest clubs from the richest leagues to offer genuine excitement. It was flat, predictable and City should have won by more.
Even though they were not operating at full throttle, they kept creating chances and the aggregate score between these two sides over the last three games is City 12 Shakhtar 0.
It told us little about what City’s backline will be like under pressure and the worries remain that they will be harmed in the future. With Aymeric Laporte out until February and John Stones missing until November, the folly in not replacing Vincent Kompany in the summer may yet be exposed. But it will not be done by teams with Shakhtar’s qualities, or rather the lack of them.
Shakhtar are pleasant to watch but their offensive players are skilful and quick, rather than powerful and direct. It meant Fernandinho, a defensive midfielder, not a centreback, was able to sit deep and rely on the protection of Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan in front of him.
“I didn’t have doubts that he would do well,” an immensely satisfied Pep Guardiola said. “We had two thirty-something-year-olds playing at centre-back today, Nico [Otamendi] is 31, Fernandinho is 34, but the next two after them are an 18- and a 17-year-old.
“I don’t know if they can play two games in four days. We shall see. Fernandinho can play any position, he’s an incredible guy.”
What Shakhtar do not have – something a number of Premier League sides do, including Saturday’s opponents Watford – is a powerful centre-forward who can physically dominate the Brazilian and worry City when crosses are fired into the box.
City held firm under some early pressure and took the lead when Gabriel Jesus teed up Gundogan, who stroked a nonchalant, sidefooted finish which came back off the post and rebounded perfectly for Riyad Mahrez to score.
There was virtual silence in the ground, with only the cheers of about 200 travelling supporters and the tame celebrations of the City players and bench heard in the chilly autumn night.
Shakhtar should have equalised but as soon as they could not convert one of two good chances in the first half, they were beaten.
Taison made a fool of Rodri, poking the ball through his legs and sprinting away. The Shakhtar captain did brilliantly, waiting for the perfect moment to release his pass to Junior Moraes, but his finish was poor and Ederson stood up well.
It was a costly miss. Seconds later, Shakhtar were two down. This was City at their best. Rodri spread play wide to Mahrez, who collected it on the run and darted inside the full-back. Shakhtar’s defence could not reorganise and the Algerian rolled a pass sideways for Gundogan to control and finish in one fluid movement.
The Premier League champions were in control. It was not a case of whether they would win, but by how many as Kevin De Bruyne found the side-netting.
Shakhtar, though, still had enough going forward to open up the City defence once more before the break, Moraes again unable to beat Ederson. Other teams will be looking closely at the ease with which the City goalkeeper was exposed by a simple curled through ball though.
City should have made it three at the start of the second half. Taras Stepanenko passed the ball straight to Gundogan, whose shot was saved by Andriy Pyatov, before Raheem Sterling hit the post.
Still the chances kept coming. Otamendi had a goal chalked off for offside, Gundogan and Sterling got in a tangle and De Bruyne dragged an effort wide. Eventually so did their third goal, as De Bruyne played in Jesus and he finished brilliantly.
“It was easier at the back because we played as a team and the guys up front closed down the space,” Fernandinho said. “It was a quiet night at the back because the team played a very good game, but I’ve been training in that position [centreback] since the start of the season.”
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