For Manchester City, this was an extraordinary night. For much of the game it promised frustration but a rush of goals in the final minutes, begun by Fernando Llorente’s 65th-minute winner for Sevilla against Juventus, changed the complexion not just of the night but also of the entire group stage. City, somehow, finished up on top of Group D as Raheem Sterling celebrated his 21st birthday with two goals and a starring role in his side’s 4-2 victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach which served to showcase City’s many shortcomings.
At least here there was character. City has faltered so often before and has been so criticized for its lack of a hard edge that it’s only fair to give it credit for keeping going and taking advantage when an unlikely opportunity presented itself.
"It’s better, now we see what happens with the draw," City manager Manuel Pellegrini said after the win. "It’s not the most important thing, the most important thing is to qualify. But now we avoid the important teams of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich. But we will have to beat a good team to get into the quarter-finals. It’s important Manchester City grow every season."
This was a reward for perseverance, for a much-improved second-half performance and for Wilfried Bony’s impact from the bench. Bony’s absence form the starting lineup was one of four changes to the City team after Saturday’s inexcusably insipid defeat at Stoke City. His career at City hasn’t taken off since his January move from Swansea City and, if he can’t get in the side when Sergio Agüero is injured, it doesn’t say much for his long-term prospects. Or at least that was how it seemed at kickoff.
Sterling was deployed as a false nine instead in the middle of an attacking trio, and it was his deft backheel that laid in David Silva to smack in the opener after 16 minutes, though the England forward would go on to have a far greater impact. Remarkably, the goal made City the first team to score the opening goal against Gladbach since Andre Schubert took over 16 games ago.
Presumably looking to bolster a midfield that has looked flimsy at times this season, Pellegrini opted for a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-2-3-1, with Yaya Toure sitting between Fernandinho and Fabian Delph. Bacary Sagna had been left out with Gael Clichy, normally a left back although he is natural right-footed, coming in at right back. Both changes were exposed in Gladbach’s equalizer. Fabian Johnson jinked by Clichy far too easily and then was allowed to carry on his run as the midfield backed off. As he was, at last, closed down, the USA international squared for the right wing-back, Julian Korb, who despite and awkwardly bounced ball, crashed his finish into the bottom corner.
In City’s fourteenth game without Vincent Kompany this season, it was also the fourteenth time it had failed to keep a clean sheet. It was also the 30th time in 34 Champions League games it had failed to keep a clean sheet. The same problems keep on recurring.
And they kept recurring here. Johnson’s running caused Clichy persistent problems. The midfield, even with the extra body, kept on dematerializing. Three minutes before halftime, four quick passes following a kick-out form the Gladbach keeper Yann Sommer led to Mahmoud Dahoud in such space in the middle of the pitch that he was able to run unchallenged for 30 yards. On a counter-attack, that might have been just about excusable; from a goalkeeping clearance it was shambolic. Dahoud’s shot was blocked, but the ball broke for Oscar Wendt, whose cross was touched on by Johnson for Raffael to nudge past Joe Hart.
It was entirely typical of City in Europe not just this season but last and the seasons before that. There’s a softness to it that means it loses games it appears in control of. The 2-1 defeat to Juventus in the first game of the group was almost exactly the same, Kompany’s injury at 1-1 leading to a sloppiness and a collective loss of concentration that turned a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 defeat.
This time, though, it didn’t lead to defeat. The second half was all City and, more specifically, all Sterling. In the space of eight minutes three chances fell his way; the first he wasn’t quite sharp enough to seize on as Fernandinho’s cross was chested riskily back to the goalkeeper; the second he hit tamely at Sommer after Aleksandar Kolariv had found him in space at the edge of the box; the third he caught well enough on the volley after Yaya Toure’s shot had been blocked, but Sommer made an excellent save low to his left.
This, perhaps, might have been used as evidence that for all his gifts, he is still not a finisher. Bony came on and he was able to drop back into the deeper role he prefers. With 79 minutes gone, Clichy crossed from the byline on the right, Bony touched it on and Sterling scored from close range. City, having dominated the half, was suddenly rampant. Bony laid in Sterling to score with a first-time curling finish. Four minutes after that, Bony scored at the second attempt after being picked out by Kolarov.
It was breathless and brilliant, but it was rather too chaotic for comfort. After so many glum nights in the Champions League, though, City deserves its celebrations.
"Feet up now with my daughter and my family now," an ecstatic Sterling admitted how he would celebrate the victory. "The most important thing was trying to avoid all the big teams in the next round and trying to get a fair draw and hopefully we can do it over two legs. We have made it hard at times, but the most important thing is that we have shown the character and hopefully we can carry it on to the last 16."
Information from The Press Association was used in this report.