Manchester City bounced back from their shock Premier League defeat at Norwich by launching their Champions League campaign in style with a deserved victory at Shakhtar Donetsk.
Humbled at Carrow Road on Saturday evening, the English champions were imperious in Ukraine against an initially tenacious, but ultimately inferior, opponent.
Riyad Mahrez opened the scoring midway through the first half, firing into a largely empty net after Ilkay Gundogan’s curling shot came back off the post.
Mahrez then turned provider for the onrushing German to toe-poke the ball past the helpless Andriy Pyatov and give the visitors a firm grip on the game – a grip they did not relinquish.
After spurning a number of good opportunities, including an untypically forgiving close-range effort from Raheem Sterling that struck the post, Gabriel Jesus gave the one-sided game a more fitting scoreline with a neat finish after Kevin de Bruyne’s pass.
Only Dinamo Zagreb’s 4-0 hammering of Italian side Atalanta in Croatia prevents Pep Guardiola’s side topping the group.
City provide perfect riposte
City’s 3-2 defeat by Norwich left them five points behind leaders Liverpool (the side they pipped to last season’s title) with just five games played.
But they have the start they wanted in the Champions League – the only trophy Guardiola has yet to deliver to the Etihad – after arguably the toughest game of a group from which they are favourites to qualify.
There was little of the apprehensive defending on display in Norfolk and a far greater level of fluency and attacking verve as the home side’s largely counter-attacking attempts were regularly repelled and their defence repeatedly unpicked.
Restored to the starting XI, De Bruyne was full of intelligent runs and passes to match, while the direct and pacy trio of Mahrez, Sterling and Jesus (who scored three against the same opponent in a 6-0 win last November) terrorised the home back four.
But for some wayward finishing, City could well have matched the scoreline they racked up against Shakhtar in that game at the Etihad a little under a year ago.
Regardless, City’s recent dominance over a side who are their regular Champions League opponents continues, with this their fourth win in five encounters, the only defeat of which came in a dead rubber at the end of the group stage in 2017-18.
Fernandinho untroubled at the back
City have been plunged into something of a defensive injury crisis of late as a result of the muscle injury that has consigned John Stones to a spell on the sidelines alongside fellow centre-back Aymeric Laporte, who is out until the new year.
In their absence, Fernandinho – a midfielder by trade but long touted as a potential central defender by Guardiola – made the short move into the back four in Ukraine, alongside Nicolas Otamendi.
If, as expected, the Brazilian is to be the man to deputise at the back (and he hinted as much after the game by admitting he had been training as a defender since the start of the season), he will have sterner tests than this, but what he was required to do, he did well.
Two interceptions, two solid headers won and a passing accuracy of 90% make for a quietly efficient night.
Shakhtar’s best opportunities fell to Junior Moraes, but after three times finding himself with just Edersen to beat he first struck the Brazilian’s chest with a shot, then missed the ball completely with an attempted flick finish before floating a lob harmlessly off target after the City keeper had rushed out of his box.
They sent on wily and capable Ukraine international Yevhen Konoplyanka and Brazilians Marcos Antonio and Dentinho but to zero alteration to the flow of the game.
Meanwhile, City were able to give Benjamin Mendy a first run-out of the season and some minutes to Joao Cancelo – a clear indication that while they currently lack depth in some defensive areas they are spoilt for choice in others.
Man of the match – Kevin de Bruyne (Man City)
City continue dominance over Shakhtar – stats
- Shakhtar Donetsk have conceded 15 goals in their five meetings with Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League; the most they’ve conceded against an opponent in the competition.
- Manchester City have kept clean sheets in four of their five Champions League matches against Shakhtar Donetsk, double the amount than they have versus any other side.
- Since the start of 2016-17 campaign, only Real Madrid (84) and Bayern Munich (72) have scored more Champions League goals than Pep Guardiola’s Man City (71).
- Shakhtar Donetsk have failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their last 17 UEFA Champions League matches (36 goals conceded).
- Riyad Mahrez has had a hand in seven goals in seven Champions League appearances for Man City (2 goals, 5 assists).