LISBON, Portugal — Manchester City put on a show on the opening night of the Champions League knockout rounds, winning 5-0 and sending a reminder to the rest of Europe that they are favourites to lift the trophy in Saint Petersburg in May for a reason.
Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva had already found the net and before the Serbian referee had managed to blow his half-time whistle, Silva, his every touch booed thanks to his links with Benfica, scored a fourth.
City became first team to score four goals in the first half of a Champions League tie. Game over. Job done.
When Raheem Sterling made it 5-0 with a goal which moved him into City’s top-10 goalscorers of all-time, there was still more than half an hour to play. The only incentive for Sporting to turn up in Manchester in three weeks’ time is to try to avoid the 12-1 aggregate defeat they suffered to Bayern Munich the last time they reached the knockout rounds in 2009. A repeat performance from City and it will be a close run thing.
“It is a fantastic team, they are the champions of Portugal but I am very pleased because we make a big step towards the next round,” City boss Pep Guardiola said afterwards.
“It’s just a game with a fantastic result. We have one more game to be in the quarterfinals and this is what you want.”
On their last trip to Sporting Lisbon in 2012, City lost 1-0 in the last 16 of the Europa League, but they are a different beast now.
The reigning champions of Portugal were swept aside in almost dismissive fashion. Guardiola’s team were like a sprinter trying to use the heats to warm up for the main event only to accidentally break the world record.
Made to settle for silver last season, they are aiming for gold this time around, and the bookmakers, at least, believe they are likely to do it. On this evidence it is hard to argue.
There were probably more eyes on the stars of Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid facing off 1,000 miles north east in the French capital but the strength that Guardiola has created is in collective brilliance rather than a reliance on individual moments of genius — although there were bits of that too with Bernardo’s volley to make it 2-0 and Sterling’s exquisite 20-yard strike in the second half.
Speaking ahead of the game, Guardiola called it “harmony” and everything was in tune here.
The task now is to maintain it though six more games, and if City needed a reminder of what can happen in this competition they needed only to look at their surroundings.
City arrived at Jose Alvalade Stadium for the pandemic-affected Champions League mini tournament in 2020 having put out Real Madrid in the last round but conspired to shoot themselves in the foot in the quarterfinals with an inexplicable 3-1 defeat to Lyon.
The Champions League sometimes does strange things to Guardiola, like starting the final against Chelsea without a defensive midfielder.
There were no problems this time, but there is still a long way to go and better teams to come.
Guardiola will be glad of the clean sheet against Sporting after watching his team concede 10 goals in the group stages, five more their entire campaign last season.
There were one or two nervous moments on the break early in the first half that will need to be ironed out but Sporting’s involvement was soon reduced to playing a demoralising game of chase. They weren’t even allowed as much as a corner, let alone a shot on target. You only knew Ederson was on the pitch because it was impossible to miss his garish pink kit.
Sporting coach Ruben Amorim couldn’t help but be impressed — “they killed us every time they came to our box” — although Guardiola was left still wanting more.
“Some players underperformed and we lost easy balls but we were so clinical,” he said. “The difference between the two teams is not 5-0 but we were so clinical. We punished them.
“There is one rule in football when you have the ball and that’s not to lose it. We had some simple passes that we lost. Against the top sides in Europe we would be punished.
“The players know me and the way we work that we can do better. I’m incredibly happy, please don’t misunderstand me, but we can do better.”
PSG, Real Madrid and every other team with Champions League ambitions this season can consider themselves warned.