April 17, 2024

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND — Manchester City had Young Boys beaten by half-time on Tuesday and their UEFA Champions League group stage campaign is done and dusted after just four games.

Pep Guardiola will want to secure the top spot in Group G but 12 points from a possible 12 so far means that, for the 11th year in a row, City will have an interest in the knockout rounds in the new year.

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Having reached the semifinals in each of the last three years, qualifying from their group will be viewed as the first small hurdle cleared on the way to bigger things but trophy runs have to start somewhere. Watching Guardiola’s team, it’s tempting to think that the big teams should always cruise through the groups but less than an hour before kick-off at the Etihad Stadium, Barcelona were beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk in Group H.

City are one of only three teams to hold a 100% record in this season’s group stage and are the first team to qualify for the Round of 16. You wouldn’t bet against them being the last team standing after the final at Wembley Stadium in June, either.

“Of course, we are incredibly happy to have qualified with two games left,” said Guardiola. “People say ‘yeah, the group stage, it’s easy’, but you have to do it. In life, you have to do it when people expect you to do it.

“Sometimes you have to fight the tendency people think about us. The important thing is it happens when people say we qualify. The job isn’t done, we have to finish first [in the group] and have the second leg in the last 16 home. We have a job to do but the first step to qualify is done. I was really impressed.”

After beating Young Boys 3-1 in Switzerland two weeks ago, the return fixture was effectively over when Phil Foden wriggled around Ulisses Garcia to score and put City 2-0 up in first-half stoppage time.

Erling Haaland had already scored a penalty 20 minutes earlier and Guardiola felt comfortable enough to replace John Stones with Nathan Aké. City play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday and ahead of the game, Rodri, Bernardo Silva and Julián Álvarez were all given the night off.

Haaland wasn’t even supposed to be fit after coming off with an ankle problem in the 6-1 win over Bournemouth on Saturday but he felt well enough to smash in a third goal just after half-time. At that moment, any hope the Swiss champions had of staging a comeback was over but to further ram home the point, Sandro Lauper was shown a second yellow card and was sent off.

With his team 3-0 down and a man light, manager Raphael Wicky was happy to see Haaland come off early, although Mauricio Pochettino might now be wincing at the thought of a well-rested Norwegian turning up at Chelsea at the weekend. Haaland hasn’t had the same praise he was getting this time last year, but it’s now 15 goals in 17 games for the 23-year-old this season.

“Whether it’s the six-yard box or 18-yard box, he has the talent,” said Guardiola. “We saw in the training session [on Monday] how he moved and how happy he was. He feels good, so okay. He played, the job was almost done and so he takes a rest for next Sunday.

“We lack today a bit, the sweet or soft [approach] in the last touch or action in the 18-yard box. There, we weren’t good enough but the rest was really good.

“The word that defines this group of players for many years is consistency. We have high standards and that is why we are still in the Premier League up there and qualified from the Champions League.”

The worry for the Premier League and the rest of Europe is that City are starting to put their foot down. After three defeats in four games, it’s now five wins in a row. They went six games without a clean sheet in September and October and now it’s two in their last three games.

City were so in control against Young Boys that the visitors didn’t have a shot on goal. They couldn’t even muster a corner. But there’s no shame in being dominated at the Etihad as City stretched their winning run at home to 23 matches. Sunderland are the only top-flight side in English football history to have had a longer run and that was achieved more than 130 years ago between 1890 and 1892.

City, who haven’t lost a Champions League game at home since 2018, continue to make everything look easy. Tougher tests are coming but they’re clicking into gear.

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