Thursday, November 7, 2019

Man City's dour draw at Atalanta won't prove too costly, but a repeat performance at Anfield will


Manchester City produced a chaotic second-half display in a famous old stadium on Wednesday. They cannot afford another on Sunday.

A trip to the San Siro is usually the highlight of any European campaign, but beforehand, this one was reduced to a glorified warm-up with Anfield and Liverpool to come in four days' time. That, though, was before Atalanta jolted City during a cavalier second 45 minutes, Gabriel Jesus missed a VAR-awarded penalty, Ederson was substituted at half-time, Claudio Bravo was sent off and Kyle Walker ended the night in goal.

The bare facts are that the game ended 1-1 and City will have to wait to qualify for the knockout rounds. Pep Guardiola, though, had said the best way to get ready for Liverpool was with a polished display here and, in the second half at least, it was far from it.

The sight of Kevin De Bruyne arrowing the ball out of play with Joao Cancelo in acres of space summed up a second-half performance that lacked the usual swagger and spark.

"In the second half we suffered a lot," Guardiola admitted afterwards.

Despite starting the night with a five-point lead at the top of Champions League Group C, he stuck to his word and picked a strong team. Ederson, Fernandinho, Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling and De Bruyne were all asked to start against a team who were demolished 5-1 at the Etihad Stadium just two weeks ago.

With Aymeric Laporte, Leroy Sane, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Rodri injured, and Phil Foden suspended, Guardiola could argue he had no one else, but there was still an element of risk given the size of the game they face next. If Ederson, forced off at half-time, is not available at Anfield, the gamble will not have paid off: Bravo, sent off for bringing down Josip Ilicic nine minutes from time, has not started a league game since May 2018.

Walker, for his part, kept a clean sheet and was serenaded by the visiting fans at the end with chants of "England's No. 1." The right-back has occasionally taken part in goalkeeping sessions at the City Football Academy.

The result should never have been in doubt beyond the seventh minute.

Atalanta midfielder Remo Freuler joked in his prematch news conference that City are so good they can thread passes "through your earhole," and while Bernardo's wasn't quite that accurate, it still carved open the home defence for Jesus to flick into Sterling's path. Sterling doesn't often miss these days, and the City fans high up behind Ederson's goal were already celebrating before the ball was casually ushered into the corner with a swing of the winger's right boot. That's 18 in 20 games for club and country this season, and five already in the Champions League.

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