In the context of a defensive crisis caused by injuries to centre-backs Aymeric Laporte and John Stones, this was a particularly fine display from Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s team might have claimed victory in this opening Group C game by double the score and there was little beyond the usual alarms expected at this level to concern a patched-up rearguard.
As expected Fernandinho lined up alongside Nicolás Otamendi in central defence, the Brazilian’s inclusion one of four changes from Saturday’s defeat at Norwich City. The others were the Silvas – Bernardo and David – who were replaced by Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez, plus Sergio Agüero, replaced by Gabriel Jesus.
Luis Castro’s XI was as expected, Donetsk lining up in its familiar 4-2-3-1 with Júnior Moraes, one of five Brazilians in the starting lineup, the lone striker. Within seconds of kick-off Rodri managed to miss with a header when scoring appeared easier, Bolbat having fouled Raheem Sterling along City’s left.
Each time Donetsk roved forward, as they did twice in the early stages through Taison down the left, the packed Metalist Stadium roared the men in orange and black on. A first warning for the visitors came when Alan Patrick eluded Rodri and fired in a cross that had City scrambling, the Brazilian midfielder’s smooth technique an apt summation of Castro’s side.
Guardiola likes his team to establish a near-mesmeric rhythm that can stupefy the opposition, but at this juncture there were only flashes of this as Donetsk were breaking up the contest, and with it City’s tempo.
Now, though, the visitors began to find a killer fluidity. First, when Rodri released Sterling along the left corridor his subsequent ball in looked a certain goal for a lurking De Bruyne only for Mykola Matviyenko to intervene by heading clear.
Then Ilkay Gündogan’s pass put Jesus in and his shot was deflected for a corner. Then the German created City’s opener. De Bruyne won a tackle on the edge of the area along the right and when the ball found Jesus, Gündogan smacked it off Andriy Pyatov’s right post and Mahrez was there to turn home his first goal of the season.
This did not tame the home side, though. Instead they came at City in waves that had a concerned Guardiola prowling his technical area as first Oleksandr Zinchenko and then Otamendi were hassled into losing possession – a cardinal sin for their manager. When Taison nutmegged Rodri by the centre-spot he tore through City and slid the ball to Júnior Moraes. The noise in the stadium surged as the No 10 pulled the trigger but Ederson’s save kept City’s lead intact.
It was about to be doubled, and the second was the visitors at their best. Rodri pinged a pass to the excellent Mahrez whose control was instant. He moved forward, found Gündogan making a sweetly timed run, and the No 8 made no mistake.
The half ended with Sterling skating through and setting up Mahrez, though his effort ballooned over, before a late scare for City was ended when Fernandinho ensured Júnior Moraes’s rolling finish towards an empty net was stopped.
For the second half Castro took off Solomon for Yevhen Konoplyanka, the Israeli having failed to make an impact. Donetsk’s problem was the danger of going further behind while trying to force a way back in, but they soon had a golden chance to pull one back.
Ederson misjudged a charge out to clear the ball allowing Júnior Moraes to try a lob into an empty net, but the effort was miscued and went wide. Almost straight away Gündogan’s came close at the other end, but the impressive midfielder was unable to finish from close range.
The same player overran the ball when put clean through from a Sterling pass, the mistake causing Guardiola to throw his hands in the air, the manager surely knowing one more goal would finish it. Considering the loss at Norwich and of Laporte, then Stones, this was moving towards the kind of assured evening Guardiola wanted.
Confirmation came when Jesus scored 14 minutes from time, and there was even a late cameo for Benjamin Mendy, making his first appearance since April.
On Saturday Watford are the visitors when Guardiola’s new central defence will be tested for the first time in the Premier League. He may be relieved that injury to Troy Deeney, a roughhouse kind of centre-forward, means Fernandinho will not have to deal with him.