Sterling delivers a masterclass in the art of finishing
Another masterclass from Raheem Sterling, another straightforward win and another step closer to securing top spot in their Champions League Group, but Manchester City are answering questions nobody really needed to ask.
It is not City’s fault they are far too powerful for Atalanta and they cannot be blamed for making their progress into the knockout stage look so easy, but it is the tougher tests ahead, the true examinations that come after Christmas, they need to pass for this continental campaign to be marked a success.
Three wins from three does not tell us anything we did not already know, although Phil Foden’s sending off, two yellow cards shown for needlessly pulling the shirt of an opponent, may have told us something about him. The 19-year-old spent most of the evening proving he is the right man to replace David Silva in that key creative role behind the striker, but the nature of his dismissal was foolish, a reminder of his inexperience and immaturity.
“The red card is not the important thing,” Guardiola said. “His performance is the most important thing. He will learn from the red card. The experience is going to help him. When you have been booked, you have to be careful, but he will not be fined.”
This was impressive from Foden and City, albeit with flaws and blemishes, Guardiola showing his anger on the touchline when John Stones was not ready to come on to replace the injured Rodri. Not that even such a dominant victory will convince anyone they are better equipped to win the Champions League this season than last. The third best team in Italy were never a serious threat and City are one of the most devastatingly ruthless attacking teams in Europe which has done this sort of thing before at this stage of the competition.
The worry is that they have not been pushed or challenged. They will qualify for the knockout stage with games to spare but have no idea how they will do against better sides under knockout pressure. All we can do is wait and enjoy watching them crush teams in this brutal fashion.
Atalanta have been a breath of fresh air in the otherwise stale Serie A, qualifying for the Champions League for the first time, shoving aside the old guard, caring little for the famous names and gilded reputations of Roma, Lazio, AC Milan and Inter. But whatever Atalanta have added to their domestic football, it has not crossed the Italian border with them. They have now lost all three group games and despite a bright start, could not live with City after they provoked their hosts by scoring first.
City were poor for the first quarter, their passing sloppy, their defending shoddy. They did a fine impression of a team who had turned up expecting an easy night and seemed shocked to discover Atalanta did not want to give them one. Sometimes, even a well-oiled machine like City takes a while to get going and Atalanta took a deserved lead when Fernandinho stuck out a leg for Josip Ilicic to trip over inside the box. Ruslan Malinovskyi converted the penalty
Jolted into life, City’s response was swift and decisive as Sterling seized control, first by creating goals and then scoring them. He teed up the first for Sergio Aguero will a brilliant run and cross before winning the penalty, scored by Aguero, panicking defenders into a foul. The third goal came quickly after half time, Foden the architect, as he delivered a simple tap in for Sterling.
Sterling had his second a few minutes later, Ilkay Gundogan’s sublime pass slicing through Atalanta’s defence, before he smashed a shot into the roof of the net with the confidence of the natural finisher he has become.
And he completed his second hat-trick of the season with some clever movement and timing to convert Riyad Mahrez’s cross. Few players have been as consistently good as Sterling this year and this season could well be his most prolific yet.
“He was brilliant, an incredible player,” said Guardiola. “It depends on him how good he can be, but I think he has that desire to get better.”