Raheem Sterling shone for Manchester City as they overturned an early 1-0 deficit to crush Atalanta 5-1 and take asignificant step towards the Champions League knockout stages.
The hosts started slowly and a bright start from the Serie A side was rewarded when Josip Ilicic fell under Fernandinho’s challenge and Ruslan Malinovskyi confidently converted from the spot.
They weren’t behind for long though and Sergio Aguero flicked in Sterling’s cross before coolly despatching his own penalty after Sterling had been clipped by Andrea Masiello.
The home side took control after the break and Sterling got the goal his work had deserved when he smashed home after brilliant work from Kevin De Bruyne. In fact he got two more – a hat-trick in just 11 minutes as he continued to press home his credentials to be considered one of football’s most elite players. He then started and finished the move to make it 4-1 before flicking in Mahrez’s cross.
RAHEEM IS A DREAM
There was a time when we wondered whether Raheem Sterling would ever fulfil his potential or serve as a cautionary tale to a career that might have been – destined to be mentioned for eternity in the same breadth as Bojan Krkic, Josh McEachran and Freddy Adu.
Now he deserves to be mentioned in the same rarefied air as elite talents Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Mohamed Salah – not quite, but not far off, the very elite.
He flitted from the flamboyant to the frustrating at Liverpool and even his first few seasons at City weren’t that promising as he struggled to hone his natural skill and speed and transform into a genuine top-class footballer.
We are no longer wondering. Sterling is one of the world’s best and is nearing that pinnacle of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and certainly among the best in the chasing pack clawing their coattails.
Sterling started the night slowly, then, when City belatedly fired into life, laid on a sublime cross for Aguero to equalise. He then won the penalty from which the Argentine scored his second. We all wondered how long it would take him to net his hat-trick – except it was Sterling who did so, in just 11 minutes to be precise.
It was, quite unbelievably, his fourth treble for City… this year, the fifth of his career, a first in the Champions League. That’s four hat-tricks in his last 35 appearances for City, and the 81st goal of his career.
A special performance. A special player.
FROM FAIRYTALE TO NIGHTMARE
When Atalanta qualified for the Champions League for the first time in club history last season, it was one of those feel-good football fairytales that warms the hearts of any fan. A third-placed finish in Serie A was their best-ever league finish too.
But it has quickly turned into a nightmare this term for Gian Piero Gasperini’s side, who are essentially out of the competition after only three group games. In truth, the death knell was sounded on matchday one following a dispiriting and alarming 4-0 hammering in Zagreb by Dinamo.
They then ceded the lead at home to fall to a 2-1 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in stoppage time. And after such a heavenly finish to 2018/19, La Dea (The Goddess) are plummeting back to earth in the early months of 2019/20.
Their misery was compounded in Manchester as a fine start brought a deserved lead through Malinovskyi’s calmly taken penalty.
It’s difficult to criticise a team who come to an away ground against one of Europe’s giants knowing they’re going to be played off the park, particularly when they don’t sit back and frustrate, but flurry forward.
But we were expecting so much more after a mesmerising journey that got them here, particularly in a Group C that would have appeared inviting when the draw was made.
Still, the team based in the alpine city of Bergamo will learn a lot from their campaign. They are in third place once again in Serie A with seven wins from eight games, trailing only Juventus and Inter Milan.
The Goddess are in good shape for another appearance at Europe’s top table next season.
NO DEFENCE FOR THE DEFENCE
Pep Guardiola is a managerial genius, no-one argues that. One of the best of this generation, possibly one of the best ever.
Any yet, some of his decisions baffle. Like partnering Fernandinho and Rodri in defence when he had recognised centre-backs John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi on the bench. Even more confusing, he brought both of them on.
Now, of course, there are extenuating circumstances. Stones is coming back from a lengthy injury. Otamendi travelled far during the international break with Argentina and suffered a knock.
Are they being slowly integrated back in, or is Guardiola making a point about City’s lacklustre and sloppy start to the season defensively – they were poor in defeat to Norwich and Wolves.
Even so, setting up with two central midfielders at the heart of defence just to make a point seemed redundant. Especially when you have to bring both of the orthodox defenders on. Rodri pulled up with a hamstring strain while Otamendi replaced De Bruyne with the game won.
Then there’s the Spaniard’s little idiosyncrasies, that once used to make him unique and colourful. But now are starting to grate, even on City fans.
He was seen to admonish Stones on the City bench in the first half, seemingly for not getting ready in time. He was seen slamming a seat and shouting at Stones in a sudden fit of rage, perhaps annoyed the England man hadn’t read the situation.
We know he’s tactically brilliant, but also unnecessarily eccentric, now to the point of annoyance.
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