Clinical City make no mistake in Ukraine

Clinical City make no mistake in Ukraine
Manchester City defender Nicolas Otamendi and Shakhtar Donetsk’s Junior Moraes do battle in last night’s Champions League clash in Kharkiv. Picture: Sergei Supinsky/ Getty Images.

Any talk of a defensive crisis at Manchester City was eased as they cruised to a Champions League victory at Shakhar Donetsk to put memories of a shock defeat at Norwich behind them.

Goals from Riyad Mahrez, Ilkay Gundogan, and Gabriel Jesus were enough for Pep Guardiola’s side to open Group C with a comfortable victory in which midfielder Fernandinho produced an assured appearance as an emergency centre-half.

The victory also rescued Premier League reputations as City became the only English side to win in the first week of the new campaign following defeats for Liverpool and Chelsea plus a draw for Tottenham.

Fernandinho felt comfortable in the heart of defence and revealed he had been “training in this position since the beginning of the season”.

He added: “Pep knows everything about our squad, our team and when he needs us, I think everybody should be ready. This was my time, my opportunity, and I hope I can improve”.

A trip to Ukraine is never an easy one (even if City also won 3-0 there last year) but this tie came with more pressure than normal - and from more than one angle, too.

As the first fixture of a new Champions League campaign, there has never been greater awareness, after three Premier League title victories, that European success is the priority for a project that has already delivered at home and now needs to do so on a wider stage.

It is a measure of public esteem that Guardiola’s men went into the competition as favourites to lift the trophy, ahead even of holders Liverpool who were so outstanding in the competition last time out.

But Liverpool’s surprise defeat at Napoli 24 hours earlier heightened the need for City to put down a marker after, for them, a slightly sticky start to the Premier League campaign - and they did just that.

Last weekend’s shock 3-2 defeat at Norwich, a home draw with Spurs and high-profile injuries to key defenders Aymeric Laporte and John Stones had combined to bring doubters out of the woodwork.

Do City have the strength in depth, especially in defence, to maintain a two-pronged attack on football’s biggest prizes?

Should they have spent more in the transfer window and competed more fiercely for Leicester defender Harry Maguire instead of allowing him to fall into the clutches of rivals Manchester United?

Do Guardiola’s men have the hunger to deliver in Europe when their own fans are less than excited by the competition?

The latter of those questions, in particular, is rather unfair. City’s Champions League history has been one of misfortune and missed opportunities rather than lack of effort, especially when you remember last season’s quarter-final against Tottenham in which only VAR denied Raheem Sterling a last-minute winner that would have sent them into the last four against Ajax.

The message from the Etihad is that memories of that setback will drive them to glory this season, and they started the campaign in majestic form.

Guardiola paired Fernandinho with Nicolas Otamedi at the heart of his back four at the Metalist Stadium and in truth, the pair never looked troubled, despite all the neat possession the home side knitted together.

City showed their intentions in the very first minute when Rodri headed wide from a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick and they were ahead after 24 minutes when Jesus sweetly set up Gundogan for a shot which hit the woodwork and rebounded for Mahrez to sweep home.

The second, and decisive, goal came after 38 minutes and this time Mahrez cut inside from the right to release Gundogan for a clever dinked finish.

Any talk of a crisis — and let’s be honest, it was extremely premature — was brushed aside from that moment on. There could have been more goals - de Bruyne fired in the side netting, Gundogan was denied by a fine save from Andriy Pyatov and Raheem Sterling hit the post.

Even Otamendi got in on the act with a spectacular scissor-kick, although his effort was ruled offside, and it was no surprise when another lightning quick break ended with Jesus just about finishing off a pass from de Bruyne after 76 minutes.

There were few panics to report at the back, although Fernandinho did have to clear off his own line following a mistake by goalkeeper Ederson, and this was an assured and comfortable performance by the Premier League champions.

There will be further and tougher tests aheadboth at home and abroad, and there may be concerns over defender Kyle Walker who appeared to pick up a knock - the last thing Guardiola needs.

But City, who now face Watford in the Premier League on Saturday, will see this as a night which steadied the nerves and reminded everyone, in England and Europe, that they remain serious contenders, no matter how few fit defenders available.

Shakhtar: Pyatov, Bolbat, Krivstov, Matvyenko, Dos Santos, Lourenco (Antonio 74), Stepanenko, Solomon (Konoplyankoat 45), Marlos, Taison, Junior Moraes (Dentinho 77).

Man City: Ederson, Walker (Cancelo 81), Otamendi, Fernandinho, Zinchenko, Gundogan, Rodri (Mendy 83), De Bruyne (Bernardo Silva 77), Mahrez, Sterling, Jesus.

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