UEFA Champions League: Manchester City’s familiar excellence earns them fresh admirers in Sporting demolition

Be honest, you were not that bothered about this game were you? Set against the narrative smorgasbord that was Real Madrid against Paris Saint-Germain, it is hard to imagine many who do not have skin in the game opting for Manchester City’s Champions League trip to Lisbon. Even fewer late arrivals would have been switching on to this.

After all, by halftime the game and almost certainly the tie had become a dead rubber. City had done their hard work, racing to a four-goal lead within 44 minutes. They could have had many more had they not been determined to find the most artisanal, elegant of shots. There were nine of them in the first half, worth an average of 0.26 expected goals (xG). For the less stats-inclined of you, a standard effort for City early on on Tuesday night was the sort that would have fans oohing and aahing if it was missed, punters and pundits saying “he should have done better there”.

Not that there was much cause to say that about anything City did. This was attacking football at its most precise. Every player in blue was at the peak of their powers, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling flying down the flanks (with able support from a repurposed John Stones at right back) as Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden dragged the Sporting defense across the field. Ruben Amorim’s side never stood a chance. When Srdjan Jovanović blew the whistle for halftime, it was an act of mercy.

The question hanging over this game, as it has been often in recent weeks, is whether it is actually any fun? After all, even former Benfica playmaker Bernardo did not seem all that impressed with a 5-0 thrashing of his one-time rivals.

“We weren’t that good to be winning 4-0, we were a bit sloppy, lost some easy goals that gave them opportunities to counter attack,” he said. “Sometimes we play better than we played in this first half and go to halftime at 0-0. We can still improve We can still do better.”

The debate is not quite like that which hung over another of the all conquering sides of this century, the Spain team that won European Championships either side of the 2010 World Cup. They used possession as a defensive weapon, grinding their way to 1-0 wins and silverware.

City use their possession as a flail, putting their full weight into body blows against teams like this one, who have no choice but to retreat into a defensive shell. There was a time early in this game when Sporting, champions of Portugal and vanquishers of Borussia Dortmund in the group stage, looked like they might give their visitors something to worry about. Stones looked ill at ease against wunderkind Pedro Gonçalves, João Cancelo as loose in possession as he has been for some time.

And it all mattered for naught. City merely upped the intensity a notch or two and killed off this game. It was all a little dull, lacking any semblance of drama or intrigue from the moment a lengthy VAR review decided Mahrez should get his opening goal.

In totality, this could buttress the case of those who are left cold by Pep Guardiola’s grand project. Five-goal thumpings are not supposed to be par for the course. This was the eighth time this season City have scored at least that many. They have scored four on a further six occasions.

Yet, there were moments Tuesday night as wonderful as any fare the Champions League will serve up this season. Sterling’s curling strike to wrap up the scoring continued what has been a magnificent run of form. Foden is no false nine, and it was a poacher’s finish getting him on the scoresheet. Pencil in Bernardo’s brilliant volley of a rising ball for goal of the tournament.

It was not just the goals, of course. It is the little moments where you really watch that City shine. Ruben Dias indifferent flick of his trailing heel to snuff out a Sporting attack. Mahrez popping up where you did not expect to see him, driving past a few defenders and laying the ball off, all without breaking a sweat. Stones — an England center back, the sort of player who historically is supposed to have his back to the wall in the penalty area, heading clear whatever comes his way — stood on the attacking byline after a give and go down the right.

None of this is quite as bombastic as Lionel Messi’s missed penalty, Kylian Mbappe’s goal against his probable future employers or whatever was happening to Dani Carvajal. Tuesday’s one-sided game is extremely familiar for those who have followed City’s rise up the Premier League.

But for those to whom this was something new, there was no sign of contempt. The supporters at the Estádio José Alvalade may have been on their feet to applaud a brave effort in vain against the pre-tournament favorites, but you could not quite shake the sense that some of their cheers were for this magnificent City performance.

The big picture may seem awfully familiar for Guardiola at this stage of the season: Domestic domination seemingly inevitable, a comfortable path to the business end of the Champions League ahead of them. But on this night, Sporting and their supporters got to look at the details of this wonderful team. It seems they could not help but admire what they saw.

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