Try telling Rico Lewis this was a dead rubber. The Manchester City fullback was substituted late on and forced by referee Orel Grinfeeld to make his exit at the touchline furthest from the dugout. He didn’t mind. That only meant the standing ovation was longer and louder, as all four corners of the Etihad stood and serenaded the academy graduate whose first senior goal on his first senior start had equalised and provided the foundations for a comfortable 3-1 victory.
It had been a night ripe for City to experiment, hence Lewis’s inclusion, but it also came with the reminder of a long-established rule over the last seven years: that even just a moment of Kevin De Bruyne’s genius is capable of winning any game. Entering as a second-half substitute, he did not score the decisive goal that broke the back of this game but made it for Julian Alvarez with a special pass that, alongside Lewis’s special goal, made venturing out under a hard Manchester rain worthwhile.
Riyad Mahrez added a third to make the scoreline slightly misrepresent the balance of play. Sevilla led at half-time and were good value for it, repeatedly threatening through centre-forward Rafa Mir, but the resistance of Jorge Sampaoli’s side was broken down after the break. The result mattered little in any case. Whatever happened, City would still top Group G and go to the knockout stages, while Sevilla would still finish third and drop into the Europa League.
With nothing on the line, this was a chance to try something different and Guardiola took it. As well as Lewis’s first senior start, there was also Cole Palmer’s, in a central midfield role. He partnered Phil Foden in a glimpse, perhaps, of City’s engine room of the near future, one constructed a stone’s throw from east Manchester.
Palmer almost made an immediate impression, curling a shot just over the crossbar in City’s first meaningful attack after a lay-off from Julian Alvarez on the edge of the box. Yet as the half dragged on, whatever experiment this was, it was not working. Even before that chance for Palmer in the second minute, the troublesome Rafa Mir had already sent a sighter over the top of Stefan Ortega’s goal.
Ortega drew applause from the Etihad at one point during the first half for the delicate control of a dropping ball with his chest but Rafa Mir continued to put his more traditional goalkeeping abilities to the test, forcing Ederson’s understudy into a strong, low save in the next passage of play.
Save a neat one-two between Foden and Ilkay Gundogan and a shot that hit the side netting, City were not posing the same questions of Sevilla’s goalkeeper and looked every inch a side that, surprisingly, had not scored in three of their last five. This is far from a one-man team but, in those moments, Erling Haaland’s absence was felt.
Meanwhile, Sevilla’s own hulking great centre-forward was making his presence known. That was certainly the case for the breakthrough when, to both Sergio Gomez and Ruben Dias’s apparent surprise, Rafa Mir appeared unmarked at the near post to connect with Ivan Rakitic’s corner. A looping header was placed out of Ortega’s reach but just inside the far post. City could not say they had not been warned.
While his defence passed the buck, Guardiola’s response was to send his holding midfielder to warm up. Rodri was eventually introduced for the start of the second half – replacing Jack Grealish – but it was the introduction of a Manchester United player that would lead to City’s equaliser.
Quite what on-loan Alex Telles was attempting to do by playing a square pass across the face of his own box among a crowd of City attackers was unclear but Julian Alvarez was not waiting around to ask questions. A pass inside Telles played in Lewis, whose finish was that of a veteran centre-forward rather than a fullback making his first senior start. City’s youngest-ever Champions League goalscorer celebrated with a mix of ecstasy and disbelief.
Still eager to round off Group G with victory, Guardiola sent for De Bruyne. Within three minutes, he had played the game-breaking pass that cut Sevilla’s defence to ribbons. Jose Angel Carmona tried his level best at an interception but, even at full stretch, could not get a toe on a pass destined to find Alvarez. The young Argentine is earning a reputation as just as clinical a finisher as Haaland and made no mistake once put through.
Having also set up Lewis, Alvarez ended the night with two assists when squaring for Mahrez to complete the evening’s scoring and maintain his mini-revival in form, lifting the finish over Bono. City progress as group winners and at a canter. That is nothing out of the ordinary nowadays, and the ease with which Guardiola’s side have qualified for the knockout stages will recede in the memory come the spring, but for Lewis, this was an unforgettable night.
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