Manchester City trailed early to Porto, but in the end opened their Champions League campaign with three points.
Manchester City were not at their best in the first game of the Champions League, but responded to get a 3-1 win against FC Porto at the Etihad Stadium. After Luis Díaz made a mazy run to give the visitors a shock lead, City were lethargic and slow in possession, struggling to break down the Portuguese champions’ five at the back setup. Two set-piece goals, however, proved the difference before Ferran Torres finished the deal from the bench to give City, massive favorites in Group C, the early edge.
1. John Stones’ bleak future
With both Aymeric Laporte and Nathan Aké unavailable, this seemed a prime opportunity for John Stones to partner with a top defender in Rúben Dias and regain his confidence. While I believe the center-back partner is critical for all defenders, I think who Stones plays with is the most important factor in how he performs. Many of his poor showings from a year ago that have now left him on the fringes of the first team came alongside Nicolás Otamendi or Fernandinho.
The £47.5 million defender is far from a perfect player; while he is good on the ball, he is not an anchor at the back that can organize the defense nor a top aerial presence or tackler. Nevertheless, he has had good spells in a City shirt, mostly coming alongside Laporte. It may be early days, but Dias appears to be in that category, so I believe pairing Stones with the Portuguese in this game would have been the perfect opportunity to see what he can still provide.
Nevertheless, Pep Guardiola instead decided to start Eric García, with whom he plays favorites. The Spaniard is 19 years old, demanded a move away from the club in the summer, and was fuming that he City rejected Barcelona’s advances. City are effectively paying a £15 million loan fee for the player after turning down a good deal for a player that has already told the club he will leave for free at the end of the season. Stones, on the other hand, reiterated his commitment to City and desire to fight for his place.
There could not be a bigger contrast: a young player who was given the opportunity to develop used his first-team experience to leverage passage back to the club that let him walk away just two years ago got the start over a veteran committed to the club. Justice was not done, but City won, and I suppose Stones is nothing more than a £47.5 million Carabao Cup player these days.
2. Bernardo Silva better without KDB?
The idea on its surface seems blasphemous. How can any player play alongside Kevin De Bruyne and be worse? It may be a correlation/causation problem, but during Bernardo Silva’s breakout 2018/19 campaign in which he was Manchester City’s Player of the Season and finished in the top 10 for the Ballon D’Or, De Bruyne was out due to long-term injury and Silva played in his attacking midfield role. Then, when the Belgian was fit for most of last season, Bernardo struggled tremendously.
Now, in the last two matches with De Bruyne sidelined, against Arsenal and Porto, Bernardo seems to have found the spark again, and the question must now seriously be asked. There is no great answer as to why: perhaps they occupy the same spaces? De Bruyne sees too high of a volume of the ball for Bernardo to make his impact? It’s an interesting conundrum, and one to watch moving forward.
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3. The Weight of Expectation
In the Champions League, media, oddsmakers, and fans agreed on one thing in the last few years with the exception of 2020: Manchester City were odds-on favorites to win the competition. While there was little basis for this claim, as City have not advanced past the quarterfinals under Guardiola, their domestic ability during their title-winning years suggested a team strong enough to lift club football’s most coveted prize.
This year, however, they are not the favorites, as reigning champions Bayern Munich seem a tier above the rest. Nevertheless, the expectations remain: City are supposed to win the Champions League, and it may be their final chance to do it with Guardiola at the helm. In my opinion, however, this team must prove it to me before I consider them capable of winning. City have cruised through easy group stages before, been handed favorable knockout draws, and then totally underperformed to go out to teams of inferior quality such as Tottenham and Lyon.
Until I see a team that can dig deep and find the steel to win on those hard European nights, I’d expect nothing more than what we’ve seen the last three years running: a breeze through an untested group stage and a quarterfinal elimination. Like it or not, that’s what this team has shown they are, and unless they can prove that something has tangibly changed, it would be following the definition of insanity to try the same thing and expect different results.