Manchester City look like Champions League contenders, says Gary Lim
Pellegrini's men show European pedigree as they fight back to top group
MANCHESTER CITY 4
(David Silva 16, Raheem Sterling 80, 81, Wilfried Bony 85)
(Julian Korb 19, Raffael 42)
Manchester City have dodged a bullet.
With a brilliant 4-2 comeback win over Borussia Moenchengladbach in their final group game yesterday morning (Singapore time), the Citizens secured the coveted top spot in Group D.
In their moment of truth, Manuel Pellegrini's stars responded.
There was plenty to admire about City's resolve.
They had neither team captain Vincent Kompany nor hotshot striker Sergio Aguero on the pitch.
They went into the half-time break 2-1 down, after Julian Korb and Raffael responded smartly to David Silva's opener in the 16th minute.
That the players managed to maintain their focus - Juventus would have topped the group with a draw against Sevilla - showed character.
Pellegrini stopped short of calling it the club's best European performance in its short history of Champions League football, but it may well be.
It could go down as the night City finally stamped their mark on the world's biggest club competition.
Crucially, they will now avoid a meeting with one of the other group winners in the Round of 16, like Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
Pellegrini may say that first or second place doesn't matter, because the big boys will come up sooner or later.
But, after back-to-back seasons of finishing second and subsequently getting knocked out by Barcelona in the Round of 16, the final whistle at the Etihad Stadium, coupled with Juventus' defeat by Sevilla in the other Group D fixture, would have come as a relief.
In part, the Chilean's appointment at City in 2013 was down to his tactical nous in the competition.
His progress with modest Villarreal to the last four (2005/06) and unfancied Malaga to the quarter-finals (2012/13) was what probably convinced City's Abu Dhabi owners that he was the man to lead the club in their bid to conquer Europe.
The 62-year-old can be proud of a fine performance that gave City their maiden first-place finish in the group stage.
Yet, for a long time, it looked like one of those nights of agony and frustration for the hosts - and there have been many for City in Europe over the past four seasons.
Moenchengladbach's stiff resistance and enterprise looked set to be rewarded, until City returned after half-time with steel in their blood.
As the visitors' defiance withered, City began to swarm around.
The stage fright that so often consumed the Manchester club on European nights was cast aside as verve and invention came to the forefront.
Eliaquim Mangala was transformed after a poor first half.
Fernandinho led by example in midfield with his lung-bursting runs.
Silva provided the cutting edge with his vision and passing.
Raheem Sterling, while not clinical with his finishing, was becoming a constant menace in the opposing penalty box.
They were systematically shredding Moenchengladbach from the sides, and the breakthrough duly arrived.
The new Man City were playing like the Manchester United of old.
When the turning point came, Andre Schubert's team didn't see what hit them.
Sterling struck with two goals in two minutes (80th and 81st) on his 21st birthday. He needed those, after his confidence was shattered in the 4-1 home loss to his former club Liverpool less than three weeks ago.
Wilfried Bony, these days reduced to a squad player, added the icing on the cake five minutes from time to complete a thrilling victory.
There remains kinks to be ironed out, of course.
A defence that conceded eight goals in six group matches must improve considerably before they are ready to take on the top guns.
Pellegrini (below) must also drill into his attacking players the importance of taking on more defensive duties.
But City have probably shown more positives in the 90 minutes against Moenchengladbach than they have accumulated over the last four years.
Finally, they have come of age.
- Sevilla 1 Juventus 0
- Man City 4 Moenchengladbach 2
It is one of the best. If we play the way we did in the second half we can play against any team.
— Manager Manuel Pellegrini who hailed the performance as “one of the best European nights in City’s history”