Manchester City finished their Champions League group games with a hard fought but deserved victory over Marseille. After a goalless first half, Ferran Torres finally broke the deadlock on 48 minutes, and was later followed by goals form Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling as the blues remained unbeaten in the group stage.
City went into the match having already qualified for the last 16 stage as group winners, having won four of their five games so far. With their passage secure, manager Pep Guardiola made nine few changes to the side that beat Fulham on Saturday. American keeper Zack Steffen made his Champions League debut while also starting Eric Garcia in defence. Kyle Walker and Phil Foden also returned to the side, while Sergio Aguero was named on the bench.
The blues had already beaten the French outfit 3-0 in October, and while City had nothing to play for except to remain unbeaten, Marseille needed to avoid defeat and hope Porto beat Olympiakos in Greece so they could compete in the Europa League, and for a 48 minutes, they had achieved just that.
As what has now become the norm, the blues had the majority of the possession and almost tool the lead in the eighth minute when Riyad Mahrez’s shot was blocked by the foot of the keeper. The blues were dealt a blow in the 26th minute, when Eric Garcia had to be withdrawn and replaced by John Stones, who had another opportunity to impress Guardiola.
The visitors had the ball in the City net on 30 minutes, when Dimitri Payet produced a fine finish with the outside of his right boot, but the Marseille man was so far offside he was almost back in France. Four minutes later, a Mahrez shot whistled past the post after the Algerian was set up by Ilkay Gundogan.
Stones’ chance to impress Guardiola came three minutes before half time. Florian Thauvin’s cross was about to be met by Valere Germain, but the England defender stuck out a leg and diverted the ball for a corner.
Half-time: City 0-0 Marseille
Raheem Sterling replaced Gundogan at half-time as City raced out of the blocks, and taking the lead on 48 minutes. Mahrez made a run into the penalty area and slipped the ball to Torres, who gleefully swept home to score his sixth Champions League goal of the season.
Foden had two opportunities to increase City’s lead on the hour mark, but dragged his first chance wide, before forcing the keeper into a save with his second. Kyle Walker then made the keeper work with a thunderbolt of a shot, that the keeper managed to push away, although how much of it he knew about is unknown.
Then came the moment that City fans had been waiting for and Marseille didn’t want to see. Sergio Aguero replaced Mahrez in the 67th minute, and it took the striker just ten minutes to make his mark. Nathan Ake met an in-swinging corner on the City right and his thumping header was parried by the keeper, but only into the path of Aguero, who poked the ball home.
Sterling also tried to get on the scoresheet two minutes later, but his shot was saved as the keeper thwarted City again. Marseille did try to make a game of it and went forward as often as City would allow, but barely forced Steffen into a save.
The points were wrapped up in fortunate circumstances in the last minute of normal time as Sterling did manage to get on the scoresheet. Mandanda in the Marseille goal parried a cross, but the ball hit the back of Alvaro Gonzalez and into the path of Sterling, who hammered the ball into the roof of the net.
Defeat for the French side means an exit from European competition, but the blues march on as they seek that elusive first Champions League title.
Final Score: City 3-0 Marseille
City Ready For The Derby
The result was no more than City deserved and another clean sheet for the blues was welcome. City barely got out of third gear against the French side, but it was still enough to see them ease past the former European champions.
Marseille needed to avoid defeat to qualify for the Europa League in third place, especially so as Olympiakos lost 2-0 at home to Porto, but they offered little in the City penalty area, registering just eight shots in total, with just two on target. By comparison, City managed sixteen shots overall, with nine on target.
City conceded just one goal throughout the group stage, a feat not achieved by an English side since United in the 2010/11 season. The blues also amassed 16 points, the highest they have ever achieved and matches the totals claimed by Arsenal in 2005/06, United in 2007/08 and Spurs in 2017/18.
That of course, was in United’s heyday, when not many teams across Europe posed a threat and they would have usually swept a side like RB Leipzig aside without a second thought. But OGS and co will have had a lot to think about after tonight’s performance. City made nine changes to the team that beat Fulham at the weekend, and the timely return of Sergio Aguero to first team action will give the Old Trafford boss another headache.
But it’s not just up front that City are looking ominous; the problems with City’s defence, which dogged the blues last season, look to have been solved. John Stones was excellent when coming on the replace Eric Garcia in the first half, and formed a solid partnership with Aymeric Laporte. But it was the return of Nathan Ake that really caught the eye.
The centre-back was making his first appearance since October, but slotted in perfectly at left back. The Netherlands international tore forward at every available opportunity, but was also on hand to defend resolutely whenever Marseille got forward, and he must surely be in contention for Saturday’s derby.
Guardiola will no doubt be delighted with his team’s progress this season, but qualification in the past has not been the issue, it is the knockout stage that has posed the problems, but if the blues can steer clear of injuries, they must surely be in with a chance of claiming the trophy this season.