Raheem Sterling returned to action for Manchester City in their Champions League clash against Hoffenheim at the Etihad Stadium.
Here, we take a closer look at the performance of the England forward, who was on the end of alleged racist abuse from a section of Chelsea supporters in Saturday’s Premier League game at Stamford Bridge and accused newspapers of helping to “fuel racism” with the way in which they portray young black footballers.
There was little evidence of Saturday’s events having an impact on the approach of the 24-year-old. Sterling was all smiles during the warm-up and got straight into the action early on, only to find himself flattened after running into Hoffenheim captain Benjamin Hubner as he darted into the penalty area. The England international, voted the Premier League Player of the Month for November, soon dusted himself down to go again, but often found himself doubled-up against as he looked to make an impact from the right. Saw the funny side when City somehow failed to score from his counter-attack after sprinting almost the length of the field during the second half.
Sterling remained a key part of City’s fluid frontline, helping in the transition from midfielders Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan. Provided usual outlet down the flanks, which stretched the Germans as both Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus made the most of the extra space. Sterling sprinted clear from a corner, and opted to unselfishly square for Sane, who then laid it off for Silva, but the keeper saved. It was, though, not long before Sterling’s clever play did help make the breakthrough as he played a neat one-two with Sane to help set up City’s crucial second goal on the hour.
No real opportunities came Sterling’s way during the first half as City looked to get themselves back on terms after trailing to an early penalty from Andrej Kramaric. Continued to remain dangerous in attack, and with hindsight may well have taken on his counter-attack chance himself. When another big moment came later in the second half following Foden’s vision, Sterling got his footing all wrong to knock the ball wide from six yards.
Juventus were also defeated 2-1 by Young Boys in the other Group H game but United’s result meant the Italians’ still finished top.
Carlos Soler opened the scoring in the 17th minute while Phil Jones stabbed one into his own net early in the second half.
Marcus Rashford pulled one back for United in the 87th minute but it was too little too late.
Here is our report card from the clash.
For Valencia – Keeping their shape
Scoring goals has been a problem for Valencia this season, fortunately they were helped out by United in that regard. Defensively though, only Atletico Madrid boast a better record in La Liga and you can see why. Marcelino’s side are well-drilled and rarely caught out of position. In truth, United did little to cause them problems so once they went a goal ahead, they were always likely to win.
For United – Substitutes?
There’s little to choose from for the Reds but surely the only glimmer of positivity came from the bench. Ashley Young and Rashford offered a notable improvement in attack and even combined for a goal in the last 10 minutes with the striker nodding home the former’s cross.
For Valencia – Striker
Valencia should’ve had more goals in this game. United’s defence is suspect and in this fixture, they fielded a makeshift backline which afforded the opposition every opportunity. Unfortunately for them, Michy Batshuayi was equally disappointing in front of goal, missing a header from inside the six-yard box in the first half. He went on to register four shots, none of which tested the keeper despite coming from good positions.
For United – Blunt attack
The team sheet said it all. Romelu Lukaku started up front and was flanked by Andreas Pereira and Juan Mata, both good players but completely lacking in pace. In the absence of Marcus Rashford or the injured Anthony Martial, United posed little to no threat going forward. Lukaku meanwhile, had zero shots.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
Misfits in midfield
Nemanja Matic is overworked to the extent it’s affected his performances massively this season. It’s evident now why Jose Mourinho is reluctant to afford the Serbian a rest. Missing in action this time, Marouane Fellaini started in holding midfield but wasn’t in his element. He kept things tidy but didn’t really direct play and was easily bypassed. Meanwhile, Pogba seems to be lacking confidence and missed a sitter in the first half. Fred was afforded a rare start and did not take his opportunity, misplacing simple passes.
For Valencia: B
They can be pleased with a rather solid display, booking their place in the Europa League. Hardly stretched by an ineffective United attack.
For United: D
It’s just another in a long line of disappointing results for United this season. Barely competing with La Liga relegation battlers – at this moment at least – is a new low.
The La Liga giants had already secured their berth in the knockout stages as Group G winners and fielded a weakened side but no one would’ve predicted a defeat of this nature.
Fedor Chalov opened the scoring, feinting with his right before curling in with his left from the edge of the box in the 37th minute before Georgy Schennikov added another two minutes before the break.
Arnor Sigurdsson then scored a third to put the game beyond the hosts in the 73rd minute.
Here are some talking points from the encounter.
VINICIUS THE ONLY WIN
When Madrid splurged €46 million on secure Vinicius’ signature as a 17-year-old, eyebrows were raised but it was clear what they were trying to accomplish. The idea was to sign Neymar before he became Neymar and on the evidence of Vinicius’ start to life at the Bernabeu, they’ll be quietly confident they’ve succeeded in doing just that.
The Brazilian became the third-youngest Madrid player to start a Champions League game on Wednesday night and he instantly looked like he belonged on club football’s grandest stage, which is more than can be said of his team-mates.
His electric performance featured some incredible play as his ability to cut inside or just as easily storm towards the byline regularly terrorised CSKA’s defenders while he had no problem getting involved in the build-up play, pulling off a couple of neat flicks along the way.
The 18-year-old remains a raw talent as was noticeable by the fact that, for all his good work, he only tested the keeper once and made just one key pass. At the moment though, he is invaluable to Madrid as one of the few players capable of providing the spark they have so often lacked this season.
It’s no secret that Madrid have been woeful in defence this season, but this was a new low. CSKA became the first team this term to score three goals at the Bernabeu this season.
Yes, Madrid didn’t have a dog in this fight having already secured their progress into the round of 16 but the manner of defeat is no less alarming as a result.
Even though Santiago Solari fielded several fringe players, there was also a generous spattering of seasoned veterans in the starting XI. Meanwhile, they were no better when the likes of Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos took to the pitch in the second half.
The central defensive pairing of Jesus Vallejo and Javi Sanchez always looked vulnerable but then again, has the preferred duo of Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos inspired confidence this season?
There appears to be a fundamental problem in the way Los Blancos defend while they certainly weren’t helped by the presence of an equally inexperienced midfield double pivot of Federico Valverde and Marcos Llorente ahead of them.
Perhaps Solari should’ve known better. It’s one thing to give a few youngsters a chance but maybe he went a step to far by using them as the complete make up of the team’s defensive core. It was still CSKA in the Champions League, not Melilla in Copa del Rey.
Football can be cruel sometimes and CSKA were the latest victims of its merciless nature. The Russian side had a Europa League spot to play for at the Bernabeu and their performance exceeded theirs or anyone else’s expectations.
Having beaten Madrid 1-0 with 10 men in Moscow, they completed the double over the tournament’s champions in four of the last five years. They did it in style as well, comprehensively beating the Spanish giants 3-0 in their own backyard but somehow found themselves finish bottom of Group G.
Viktoria Plzen snatched third place instead, winning 2-1 at home against Roma. The Czech outfit finished with a goal difference eight worse than CSKA but finished above them on the head-to-head rule.
It’s a peculiar scenario and the Russian side have every right to feel hard done by.