Pep Guardiola speaks of how vital it is to “arrive” in optimum form when the Champions League knockout phase begins. This smooth display illustrated why as Manchester City’s remarkable run went to 19 consecutive wins courtesy of the excellent João Cancelo, who was key in each goal. The manager will know passage to the quarter-finals is not complete but Borussia Mönchengladbach are firm underdogs to turn this tie around. Next up for City is West Ham on Saturday when David Moyes has to somehow find a way to outmanoeuvre Guardiola.
Mönchengladbach, eighth in the Bundesliga, emerged from their group ahead of Shakhtar Donetsk and Internazionale. Guardiola began the business end of the competition by deciding against starting Kevin De Bruyne in an XI that showed a frontline No 9 in Gabriel Jesus, after the manager – not for the first time – decided against one in Sunday’s 1-0 win at Arsenal.
Guardiola also instructed João Cancelo to wander in from left-back to make an extra midfield man, a move that occurred often due to City’s early dominance. It was down the Portuguese’s flank that Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva launched one raid, the latter receiving the ball from the former before turning into the area where Gladbach were relieved to clear.
Marco Rose’s men were ceding the ball sloppily: hardly advisable against an opponent who hog the ball expertly. It meant extra work for their defenders as when Ramy Bensebaini stuck a leg out in a perfectly timed tackle as Raheem Sterling bore down on Yann Sommer’s goal. If this was direct from City’s captain there was too much dallying when Rodri’s outside-of-the-boot pass found Jesus in the area. First the Brazilian, then Sterling and Ilkay Gündogan refused to shoot and City were thwarted.
Cancelo’s presence in central areas gave Mönchengladbach the opportunity to exploit the vacated wing as when Stefan Lainer broke forward before firing in a low cross Kyle Walker had to throw himself at to clear. The “home side” at Budapest’s Puskas Arena were technically adept in possession but they were starved of the ball by City, who swarmed all over them when they had it.
This is the relentless workrate Guardiola demands from his players and it was allowing them to attack at will. When Sterling raced past Bensebaini the left-back went for the ball and down went the forward in the area. Artur Dias ruled no penalty and VAR backed the referee but City were ahead moments later. Cancelo was supreme: his chip came down precisely where Silva wanted and the attacker’s header past Sommer was clinical. Guardiola celebrated for a moment then lectured Jesus. Gladbach had the haunted look witnessed on many sides who face City, Christoph Kramer appearing particularly troubled as it was his loose pass from which Cancelo created the goal.
City closed the half continuing to rain down on Gladbach’s goal – Foden’s wild shot from an angle on the right ending what had been a 45-minute canter. At the interval Rose’s team were glad of the breather and to be only one behind. Yet sense suggested the margin could widen as they tired.
City commenced the second half continuing to squeeze Gladbach. Cancelo again led the charge, skating through and feeding Jesus, who ran into a cul-de-sac in the area. This, too, was where Florian Neuhaus got steered into when he tried to venture beyond halfway – Silva hounding him into an about-turn that could only demoralise the midfielder and his colleagues.
Still, as long as City did not pull away there remained a glimmer of hope for Gladbach. Guardiola, who began sporting a natty club-emblazoned coat before discarding it, was becoming visibly frustrated at his team’s lack of ruthlessness.
Jesus felt the Catalan’s fury when the No 9 again dawdled when in on Sommer: this allowed Nico Elvedi to make up 10 yards and block the shot. This was nearly costly – only Neuhaus’s overhit ball stopped Alassane Pléa taking aim at Ederson’s goal. The French international was again let down by a heavy ball – this one from Denis Zakaria – but it was a further warning to City. When Plea back-heeled just wide Guardiola’s touchline disquiet grew. But Cancelo again found Silva whose header this time was turned home by Jesus.
City have still not conceded since matchday one. Another statistic is this was a record 12th consecutive away win for an English side. City have a golden chance to win their first European Cup.