Raheem Sterling takes centre stage as irresistible Man City fire Champions League warning to Real Madrid

James Robson
·4-min read
Pool via REUTERS
Pool via REUTERS

This was a performance to give Zinedine Zidane sleepless nights.

A 5-0 win wasn’t about Brighton – it was very much with Real Madrid and the Champions League in mind. That’s the focus for Pep Guardiola and Manchester City now, even more than next weekend’s FA Cup semi final against Arsenal.

Conquering Europe is the obsession for everyone at the Etihad and overcoming the “kings” from the Bernabeu will be a statement of intent. Guardiola has challenged his players to prove they can rise to the test when it counts instead of flattering to deceive once again.

His own record in the Champions League is the one blot on his trophy-laden time in England – indeed the only remaining question mark that hangs over him.

Can he win club football’s biggest prize without the aid of Lionel Messi having clinched it twice with the Argentine at Barcelona? And can City finish the job off against Real - the team he calls the “kings” of Europe - after a 2-1 first leg win in their round of 16 tie?

Sterling hit a hat-trick to make it 27 goals for the season Photo: Pool via REUTERS
Sterling hit a hat-trick to make it 27 goals for the season Photo: Pool via REUTERS

At the Amex Stadium, he got the answer he wanted from his players. The Premier League may be gone but the hunger to achieve more still burns bright.

Gabriel Jesus looked as sharp as he has since football’s restart, scoring one and hitting the woodwork. Bernardo Silva was on the score sheet in the league for the first time since November after Guardiola admitting pre-match that the Portugal international had failed to hit the heights of last season.

Then there’s Raheem Sterling, scoring a hat-trick to record his most prolific campaign ever with 27 goals, despite a 12-game run without finding the back of the net before lockdown.

Without the injured Sergio Aguero, Sterling is one of the game-changers Guardiola will rely on to make the difference against Real - and perhaps Juventus and Barcelona the further City progress.

His name in the starting XI for that second leg is all but assured. So too Kevin de Bruyne and almost certainly David Silva. But in so many areas there are places to fight for, which is exactly what Guardiola will want to ensure that edge all the way up to Real.

For instance, does Riyad Mahrez – so impressive since the restart, but desperately poor with his finishing against Brighton – get in ahead of the outstanding Phil Foden or Bernardo Silva? Will Rodri hold onto his place at the base of midfield or does Guardiola go with the more dynamic Fernandinho? Ilkay Gundogan is also in with a shout.

Bernardo Silva adds a fourth (PA)
Bernardo Silva adds a fourth (PA)

And in defence, the teenaged Eric Garcia may just be at the head of the queue to partner Aymeric Laporte in the centre. He was composed again in his latest outing and it was notable how often he was used as the out-ball by Ederson to build from the back.

This was City at their irresistible best against a Brighton side that offered little by way of opposition and were fortunate to escape with just the five-goal defeat.

On the face of it, the danger for Guardiola is that too many one-sided affairs, following 5-0 wins against Burnley and Newcastle in recent weeks, could see his side caught out when the level steps up dramatically against Real. But there is little sign of him allowing complacency to set in– and the fierce competition for places only aids him in that task.

The hunger from a team that had lost its previous three away league games was evident from the start. Sterling gave City the lead on 21 minutes, cutting onto his right foot and firing low into the bottom corner from the edge of the area.

Man City have now won 5-0 four times this season (Getty Images)
Man City have now won 5-0 four times this season (Getty Images)

Jesus doubled their lead from close range just before the break, having hit the woodwork and missed two more decent chances. Sterling met Mahrez’ perfect cross with his head to score his second after the break before Bernardo made it 4-0.

There was still time for Sterling to complete his hat-trick with another header, which he seemed to know little about after hitting the deck in the area.

His goalscoring form could hardly have come at a better time in the absence of Aguero and Real, who are long-time admirers of the winger, will fear him more than most.

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