Pep Guardiola has stated his belief that Manchester City’s inability to win the Champions League is a reason why their players have never secured the Ballon d’Or. The chances are that will continue this year but the reigning Footballer of the Year indicated why some individual honours have made their way to the Etihad Stadium and to show why he was named on the 30-man shortlist for this year’s Ballon d’Or.
This was another milestone occasion for Raheem Sterling. He scored his first Champions League hat-trick, becoming only the eighth Englishman to register a treble in the competition. He did it in double quick time, getting his treble in just 11 minutes. As if that was not enough, he had played a part in both of Sergio Aguero’s first-half brace. The Argentinian was overshadowed again but if the prizes invariably elude him in awards season, goals come rather more readily. He is now up to 241 in City colours and Atalanta departed demolished 5-1. It can be scant consolation to them that Phil Foden also had a chastening end, sent off after an otherwise encouraging display.
Yet Atalanta had led. Rather than recalling John Stones, Guardiola again paired midfielders at the heart of the defence. It was a policy that backfired when Fernandinho fouled Josip Ilicic a foot inside the penalty box. There were no complaints from the Brazilian, who realised he had erred. There was no mistake from Ruslan Malinovskyi, who dispatched the penalty past Ederson. There was soon a summons for Stones anyway, with Rodri limping off and the Englishman brought on before half-time.
Aguero had been a culprit when City failed to convert any of three chances that came in a couple of minutes before Atalanta struck. He compensated with a quickfire brace. He soon restored parity, darting to the back post to apply the finishing touch to Sterling’s chipped cross. The same combination transformed a deficit into an advantage. Sterling was fouled by Andrea Masiello and Aguero duly converted the resulted penalty.
Until he spurned a glorious chance to get his fourth, Sterling’s finishing was similarly clinical. He found the top corner of the net following a forceful burst by Kevin de Bruyne. What may have pleased Guardiola most, however, was what came in between. He had turned to Foden when he rested both David and Bernardo Silva and, rather than shooting, the teenager had the presence of mind to pick out Sterling, who had a still simpler finish, when he was found by De Bruyne.
His second of the night came when Ilkay Gundogan pierced Atalanta’s increasingly porous defence. Sterling finished coolly and his third had echoes of Aguero’s first, with the winger extending a foot to touch in Riyad Mahrez’s cross.
The drama did not end there. Foden collected a second yellow card in a needless manner that could be attributed to the rashness of youth. With his side four goals to the good, he tugged back Marten de Roon. He will miss the trip to Italy. Atalanta, still awaiting their first point, will hope Sterling and Aguero miss out, too.
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