Pep Guardiola speaks of how vital it is to “arrive” in optimum form when the Champions League knockout phase begins. This smooth display illustrated why as Manchester City’s remarkable run went to 19 consecutive wins courtesy of the excellent João Cancelo, who was key in each goal.
Guardiola is conscious that passage to the quarter-finals is not complete but Borussia Mönchengladbach are firm underdogs to turn this tie around. Next up for City is West Ham on Saturday when David Moyes must somehow find a way to outmanoeuvre his counterpart.
City’s manager was asked the one vital element in the sequence of victories. “Nineteen wins in a row – we have a lot of money to buy incredible players,” he said. “All the time it’s [due to] the money. They [also] have an incredible relationship and play every game thinking to win this game. Now we enjoy the night with some food and think about West Ham, as the second leg is three weeks away.”
Guardiola acknowledged City’s hesitancy before goal and said: “In this competition there is no margin [for error]. So in the actions of one‑on‑one, a three-on-two you have to finish the action, make the keeper make a save. We created chances, arrived in the final third but have to finish better. I would like to improve that.”
Cancelo was told by Guardiola to wander in from left-back to make an extra midfielder, a move that occurred throughout. Marco Rose’s men compounded this by ceding the ball sloppily: not advisable against opponents who hog possession expertly.
It meant extra work for their defenders as when Ramy Bensebaini stuck a leg out as Raheem Sterling bore down on Yann Sommer’s goal. If this was direct from City’s captain there was too much dallying when Rodri’s outside‑of‑the‑boot pass found Jesus in the area. First the Brazilian, then Sterling and Ilkay Gündogan refused to shoot and City were thwarted.
Cancelo’s presence in central areas gave Mönchengladbach the opportunity to exploit the vacated wing as when Stefan Lainer broke forward and fired in a low cross that had Kyle Walker lunging to clear.
The “home team” at Budapest’s Puskas Arena were technically adept in possession but too often starved of it by City, who swarmed in and around them whenever they received the ball. This is the relentless workrate Guardiola demands from his players and it was allowing them to attack at will. When Sterling raced past Bensebaini the left-back went for the ball and down the forward fell in the area. Artur Dias ruled no penalty and VAR backed the referee.
City, though, were ahead moments later. Cancelo’s chip came down precisely where Silva wanted it and the attacker’s header past Sommer was clinical. Guardiola celebrated for a moment then lectured Jesus on some positional issue. Gladbach had the haunted look witnessed on many sides who take on City, Christoph Kramer appearing particularly troubled as it was his loose pass from which Cancelo created the goal.
City closed the half continuing to go at Gladbach – Foden’s wild shot from an angle on the right ending what had been a 45-minute canter. At the interval Rose’s team were glad of the breather and to be only one behind. Yet common sense suggested the margin could widen as they tired.
Guardiola’s side commenced the second half continuing to squeeze their opponents. Cancelo again led the charge, skating through and feeding Jesus, who ran into a cul‑de‑sac in the area. This, too, was where Florian Neuhaus got steered into when he tried to venture beyond halfway – Silva hounding him into an about-turn that could only demoralise the midfielder and his colleagues.
Still, as long as City did not pull away there remained a glimmer of hope for Gladbach. Guardiola, who began sporting a natty club-emblazoned coat before discarding it, was becoming visibly frustrated at his team’s lack of ruthlessness. Jesus felt the Catalan’s fury when the No 9 again dawdled when in on Sommer: this allowed Nico Elvedi to make up 10 yards and block the shot.
It was nearly costly – only Neuhaus’s overhit ball stopped Alassane Pléa taking aim at Ederson’s goal. The French international was again let down by a heavy ball – this one from Denis Zakaria – but it was a further warning to City. When Plea back-heeled just wide Guardiola’s touchline disquiet grew. But, now, Cancelo again found Silva with a pinpoint cross: his header this time was directed at Jesus whose finish was a poacher’s.
City have still not conceded since matchday one against Porto. This was a record 12th consecutive away win for an English side. City have a golden chance to win their first European Cup.