For Manchester City it was an evening of spectacular superiority. They have had a lot of those occasions at this stadium and for the latest it is probably fair to say VAR gave them more grief than Schalke. Even the referee looked apologetic at times, embarrassed perhaps, about the slightly awkward occasions when the crowd were not sure whether they could celebrate goals properly.
Not that it mattered too greatly on a night when City threatened to repeat the 9-0 that Burton Albion suffered here in the Carabao Cup (restricting themselves to the same margin of victory they had against Rotherham in the FA Cup) and waltzed into the quarter-finals. It felt almost like a trick of the mind that there was a point in the first leg when they were losing 2-1, down to 10 men and Pep Guardiola was looking anxious, to say the least.
This was a much more stress-free occasion, featuring a three-goal blitz in seven minutes towards the end of the first half and, as always with City, no sign that they are ever willing to ease up when a rout is on the cards. Sergio Agüero scored the first two, struck the post with another first-half effort and, if anything, might reflect on a good opportunity to get his fourth hat-trick of the season.
Leroy Sané added the third goal and then set up others for Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva and the substitute Phil Foden. Gabriel Jesus made it seven on the night and 10 on aggregate. Yes, Schalke were obliging opponents but the scoreline still felt like a reflection of City’s ambitions, having softened up their opponents in Gelsenkirchen three weeks ago.
To put it into context, this was the 28th occasion in the Champions League era when a team have scored three away goals or more in the first leg and not once has it resulted in anything other than that side qualifying for the next stage. Schalke, Bundesliga runners-up last season, are four points above the relegation places and their slender hopes were obliterated when, first, Agüero demonstrated that he had been practising a panenka routine from the penalty spot and then, three minutes later, the same player added City’s second goal.
Agüero has missed more penalties over the years than he would probably care to remember but this one was a beauty. A new technique, too, for someone who usually prefers to hit the ball hard and low. Guardiola has a curious habit of not watching when his team have a penalty, choosing to stare at the floor rather than observing the action, and therefore missed Agüero chipping the ball down the middle while the goalkeeper, Ralf Fährmann, dived at thin air.
The penalty had been awarded for Jeffrey Bruma’s challenge on Bernardo Silva and the VAR analysis seemed to take an age before the decision was relayed back to the referee that Schalke’s full-back had, indeed, prevented his opponent from latching on to Ilkay Gundogan’s through ball.
When VAR is introduced to the Premier League next season it can only be hoped it is a speedier process because the length of delay here did little but irritate the crowd and affect the game’s momentum. The first wait felt unsatisfactory but it was an even more numbing delay when Agüero doubled the lead and, this time, the most infuriating part is that it looked relatively straightforward to decide that Raheem Sterling was onside in the buildup. With a clever backheel, Sterling found Agüero inside the penalty area. The striker held off Bruma before squeezing his shot past Fährmann at the near post and, finally, the goal was confirmed via a message on the large screen. Modern football, indeed.
Nor was that the last time the referee was doing that now-familiar rectangular sign with his fingers. Sané had a goal disallowed for a marginal offside decision early in the second half and at least the officials were a little quicker with their verdict when Sterling scored his goal shortly afterwards. Again, it was an issue of whether the player was offside when he ran on to Sané’s cross and thumped in a splendid first-time shot. The video replays showed he had timed his run perfectly and the fourth VAR decision in 31 minutes went in City’s favour.
It was a strange subplot but for City only a minor irritation in the overall story. Sané, in particular, looked keen to impress against his former team and his goal stemmed from possibly the best passing move of the first half. David Silva set up the shooting chance and the German drove his shot emphatically into the bottom corner.
Sané’s cutback gave Bernardo Silva the chance to drive in the fifth goal and he was prominently involved again when Foden ran through to make it six. Jesus, another substitute, added the final goal with a right-foot finish and City, on this evidence, will take some stopping.