Ster­ling de­liv­ers a mas­ter­class in the art of fin­ish­ing

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Football - Luke Ed­wards at the Eti­had Sta­dium

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.”

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