Manchester City took care of business in the Champions League on Wednesday, defeating Shaktar Donetsk by the casual score of 6 - 0. The Blues were actually not at their best in this match in my opinion, but even a diminished City is still world class and they took advantage of a Shaktar side that was too loose defensively to hold up. The main storyline from the first half was the penalty awarded to Manchester City for a “foul” by a recovering Mykola Matviyenko on Raheem Sterling, who was in on goal down the left. However, even the live television footage made it appear as if Matviyenko wasn’t close enough to Sterling to even attempt a tackle. The replay only confirmed this, as it clearly showed that Sterling simply kicked the ground and tripped himself up.
My guess is that he was trying to chip Shaktar keeper Andriy Pyatov, who was off his line, and just misjudged his kick to an embarrassing degree. Either way, this decision did change the feel of the game, which was only 1 - 0 at the time. While it was certainly an awful call, it shouldn’t overshadow the dominant performance City was putting on. This match had an air of inevitability about it, as many City matches do, and the penalty only amplified that feeling. Shaktar were shaky beforehand, but had even less semblance of cohesion or fight afterward. All that being said, let’s give Fernandinho credit for an incredible pass that bypassed the midfield and backline to put Sterling away.
Overall, the Blues were able to be more direct than usual, thanks to a Shaktar side that misplaced passes, was hesitant to close down possession in the midfield and whose backline was frequently stretched, allowing for runners in between defenders. City’s first goal came down the right flank, where Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez were combining throughout the match. Mahrez made an interesting run off the ball, where he cut in on the inside shoulder of left back Ismaily before flaring out towards the corner. Bernardo found him there and Shaktar center back Yaroslav Rakitskiy was forced to mark him wide. Mahrez went to work on the Ukrainian, backing him up into the box before Rakitskiy inexplicably turned his back to the ball for a second. This gave Mahrez more than enough time to pick out David Silva in front for the opening goal.
The penalty occurred 11 minutes later and Gabriel Jesus calmly finished into the bottom corner. We were all hoping that this would be the goal to give Jesus his confidence back and return him to form, but that result didn’t occur immediately. A Shaktar turnover in the midfield saw a misplaced pass go right to the feet of Raheem Sterling, who played Jesus in behind the backline and away on goal. The Brazilian took entirely too much time to get a shot off, clearly trying to wait until the perfect shooting opportunity would come up. This allowed Serhiy Kryvtsov to recover and block the shot. An in-form striker would have made more of this opportunity, and it seemed as if Jesus wasn’t all the way there just yet.
By the end of the game, it would appear as if Gabriel Jesus had found whatever he has been missing in these struggles as he finished the game with a hat trick. His second was another penalty shot, but one taken with more aggression and confidence, blasting it into the roof of the net. It’s not always easy to judge a player’s mental state based solely on penalties, but his final finish of the night took care of any doubts there may have been. Once again he was presented with a great scoring opportunity and this time expertly chipped Pyatov on his first touch from outside the box. This was the game Jesus desperately needed and a return to form would really solidify this team’s depth.
In between Gabriel Jesus’ hat trick, City put two more in the back of the net. Raheem Sterling made up for his earlier trip up by taking possession in the midfield, fighting off two Shaktar midfielders as he drove towards goal, and curled in a beautiful shot into the side netting from the edge of the box. Raheem Sterling in an incredible footballer, but he is susceptible to low moments in addition to jaw-dropping feats, and this match was a perfect illustration of that.
The remaining City goal to discuss came on an 84th minute counter attack where the Blues found themselves with a 4-on-4 break (or 3-on-2 depending on how you look at it). Substitute Ilkay Gundogan received a pass down the left from Gabriel Jesus and played a looping cross to Mahrez. The Algerian was unmarked, took a moment to settle, and scored through the keeper’s legs. Riyad Mahrez was excellent throughout this match in fact. He obviously had the assist on David Silva’s goal but also won the ball in the midfield before assisting on Jesus’ final tally. He made a collection of other wonderful passes, including a short cross into Jesus that was laid off for a Bernardo shot and a curving ball into the box from the touchline that Sterling just barely overran. I was firmly in the “this team is best with Leroy Sane starting” camp earlier in the season, but now I just don’t know anymore.
All of the City attackers also did an incredible job of tracking back and contributing defensively against Shaktar. This allowed the Blues to maintain 62% of possession and only concede 2 shots on goal, both of which were non-threatening. Pep Guardiola returned to his gameplan of bringing his fullbacks forward and into the midfield, a tactic regularly employed with Oleksandr Zinchenko starting at left back. This movement would come in shifts, with Zinchenko positioned in the midfield while City’s backline had possession, while Kyle Walker would only pinch in when the ball got into the attacking third.
The way this match played out was a dream scenario for Manchester City, especially with derby only four days away. First of all, we got Gabriel Jesus back on track while also allowing Sergio Aguero to rest for Sunday. Guardiola got David Silva, Kyle Walker, and Fernandinho off in the second half, saving some of their energy as well. Furthermore, Ilkay Gundogan made his return, fortifying the midfield depth which is more important than ever with Kevin De Bruyne back on the injured list. Finally, this victory in addition to the draw between Lyon and Hoffenheim, puts City comfortably on top of the Champions League, almost certain to go through to the knockout rounds. The focus shifts back to the Premier League as we gear up for one of the biggest matches of the season, Manchester United.