To the question of who would wish to be paired with Manchester City in next Friday’s draw for the quarter-finals the answer is surely no one.
This has been an easy canter through the group stage and last 16 to the business end of the Champions League for Pep Guardiola’s side. City reached last year’s final and few would wager they cannot do so again as there is a poise and knowhow in his team that was missing when Lyon, Tottenham, Liverpool and Monaco all dumped them out in the knockout rounds of previous editions.
Yet, as he has to, Guardiola said: “The fact we got to the final last season is no guarantee. We will see the draw – it will be difficult for us and for all of them too.”
Real Madrid, Liverpool and Bayern Munich are definite prospective opponents with Atlético Madrid, Manchester United, Benfica, Ajax, Chelsea, Lille, Juventus and Villarreal to complete their ties next week.
“Now we are again in the quarter-finals as one of the best eight teams in Europe. I learn to enjoy the moments,” Guardiola said. “I celebrate it because I know how difficult it is. Now it’s time to congratulate everyone, focus on the Premier League then next week we will see the draw.”
With a 5-0 lead from the opening leg this second one was the definition of academic. What Guardiola looked for, then, was the shutting out of Sporting through City’s best fluid rhythms: this he received.
Guardiola’s first act was to get in the fourth official’s ear to ask why the referee, Halil Umut Meler, did not award a penalty when a Phil Foden delivery went to John Stones and then Gabriel Jesus, who appeared to be bundled over by Manuel Ugarte.
Conrad Egan-Riley, a 19-year-old Champions League debutant, made a first contribution when skipping forward and seeing a cross deflected out for a corner. At this point City were tapping the ball between themselves and Guardiola was going through his semaphore act, whirling arms as instruction to any player who might catch his eye.
But, now, the home side’s high line was broken by Islam Slimani’s sprint from halfway and for a moment Ederson’s goal was threatened before an Aymeric Laporte leap and tackle killed the danger.
Next, Jesus again appeared to be dumped over by Ugarte in the area but the referee was, again, not interested and the passage of play ended with Foden’s shot being saved by Antonio Adán. Then Slimani felled Jesus and this time Meler awarded a free-kick: sarcastic cheers were the home support’s predictable response.
It was that kind of night – Sporting’s fans enjoying themselves by running through a medley of their favourite songs accompanied by one of their contingent constantly beating a bass drum.
City’s fans could cheer in anger, though, when Egan-Riley had to head clear from his area and, too, when Adán plucked Raheem Sterling’s dink from the air as it headed for goal moments later. They thought they could be jubilant when Riyad Mahrez, on for the second half, ran right to left across Sporting’s area, and slipped in Jesus who found the back of the net at the near post: VAR, though, narrowly ruled offside much to Guardiola’s visible chagrin.
James McAtee, another Champions League debutant, was the second half-time change and he found instant integration, helping to knit moves together along the left, as the youngster, Fernandinho, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Jesus popped the ball about with ease.
Then, in a rapid change of pace, Ilkay Gündogan beat a man and passed to McAtee who passed back and, when Jesus became involved, he relocated the on-running McAtee whose backheel was cute and went close to creating the opener for the Brazilian before Sebastián Coates intervened.
City were not coasting – this is not in the Guardiola playbook – but they were in control, harrying Sporting, claiming the ball back and launching measured attacks. Yet, in a rare foray upfield, a Marcus Edwards shimmy had Zinchenko tackling air before the winger’s attempt was too weak to trouble Ederson. This signalled a mini-period of Portuguese domination of City’s final third before, inevitably, those in sky blue moved Sporting back once more into their territory.
For the final stages Guardiola gave Scott Carson a first taste of midweek European lights for City, the goalkeeper replacing Ederson: a nice touch from his manager who ended content despite Sterling’s late, point-blank miss.
Of the expectations regarding his team, Guardiola said: “It’s a good sign. The people didn’t care what we were [before] and now step by step the club grew and now for many years we are there in [the late stages] of this competition.”