Are Manchester City the best team in Europe? We will only be able to answer that question in Istanbul in late May but between now and then, they are going to take some stopping. Pep Guardiola’s side sent an ominous warning to their Champions League rivals by all but ending this tricky tie against Borussia Monchengladbach in one leg.
The 2-0 scoreline - established by Bernardo Silva and Gabriel Jesus - was not a true reflection of City’s superiority. In theory, it leaves room for the type of spectacular collapse which has scuppered Guardiola in this competition’s knock-out stages in recent years. City look different this time, though - more controlled, more composed, and capable of reaching new heights.
This was their 19th consecutive win in all competitions, extending their extraordinary all-time record for an English top-flight club. It was their 12th straight victory away from home too, a new record itself. Midway through the second half, Guardiola’s defence marked 10 hours since conceding their last Champions League goal.
Aside from one opportunity for Hannes Wolf with the very last kick of the evening, Gladbach never looked like scoring in their nominal home leg at Budapest’s Puskas Arena. Marco Rose, their head coach, is a Jurgen Klopp disciple and one of the brightest young coaching talents in Europe but his side looked like one sat eighth in the Bundesliga and in a spell of underwhelming form.
City utterly dominated, controlling possession but suppressing and stifling Gladbach’s attempts to break on the rare occasions they took ownership of the ball. There were a couple of occasions in the first half when Rose’s side managed to spring a pass in behind for wing-back Stefan Lainer to run onto, only for City to retreat in numbers or the final ball to be woefully lacking.
Other than that, it was a waiting game for Guardiola and his players. It was clear a goal was coming from the very early stages, it was merely a matter of when. Raheem Sterling was frustrated not to win a penalty once he slipped in and was brought down by Ramy Bensebaini, who took a sliver of the ball in a forceful challenge, but it was only a matter of minutes before City took the lead regardless.
After Sterling’s early breakthrough at the Emirates, it was the second headed goal by a 5ft6in forward in as many games, with Bernardo stooping low to send a downward header out of Yann Sommer’s reach. Even City’s smaller players have added an aerial threat to their repertoire. Yet this goal was all about the assist, an exquisite cross - travelling on an almost perfect parabola - from the right foot of Joao Cancelo.
Though supposedly City’s left-back, Cancelo was essentially playing every other position on the pitch, popping up in central midfield or wherever the space was. If it left City exposed to potential danger on the counter-attack, it made their attack that bit more unpredictable. Gladbach’s defence certainly did not seem to expect the delivery when it came, with Bernardo left virtually unopposed at the far post.
Jesus should really have added a second at the start of the second half when Bensebaini put it on a plate for him, playing the Brazil international into Gladbach’s penalty area with a wayward back pass, but he delayed his shot until Nico Elvedi could recover and block. On the touchline, Guardiola was furious and would have been more furious still had Alassane Plea’s flicked back heel restored parity out of nowhere with Gladbach’s first shot on goal.
Jesus would make amends shortly after though, applying the simple finish for the second ‘away’ goal that should settle this tie as a contest. Once again, Cancelo was central to the piece, cutting inside onto his right foot from the left wing and arcing another cross into the penalty area. Bernardo was the recipient once more but this time, he headed back across the face of goal. Jesus stretched a boot out to poke past Sommer.
There was time for Sergio Aguero to make his return off the substitutes’ bench and for Wolf to try and make things interesting. A wayward Rodri pass in the final minute of stoppage time presented the Gladbach substitute with a one-on-one against Ederson. Despite being a spectator for much of the evening, the Brazilian goalkeeper stood tall and saved. You have to take such chances when they come. This new, ominous, imperious City so rarely gives them up.