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Pep Guardiola’s genius shines through but Man City’s weak link again highlighted

Manchester City were at their dominant best as they cruised to a 2-0 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

Bernardo Silva opened the scoring just before the half-hour mark, latching onto Joao Cancelo’s delightful cross to nod in at the back post.

Gabriel Jesus made amends for an earlier glaring miss by doubling the advantage in the second half, as he poked in from point-blank range after Silva’s cross-goal header.

Pep Guardiola’s side were far superior to Gladbach throughout the match, with their fluid movement on the ball flummoxing the Bundesliga side and keeping them penned back in their own half.

With two away goals and a clean sheet in their ‘away’ leg at the Puskas Arena, City’s 19th consecutive win means they already have one foot in the quarter-finals ahead of the second leg in March.

Here are five talking points from Budapest.

1. Cancelo stars as Guardiola unleashes his genius

Silva and Cancelo were at the centre of both goals

This was without doubt one of the most tactically-intriguing games of the last-16 stage so far.

Pep Guardiola utilised a number of the strategies he has trialled in the Premier League this season in a bid to unsettle City’s German opposition.

Joao Cancelo started the match at left-back but operated as a central midfielder whenever City had possession – which they did for the vast majority of the match.

While the Portuguese drifted inside, Phil Foden stayed wide and was supported by Ilkay Gundogan, wreaking havoc as Gladbach’s defenders and midfielders did not know who to follow.

This was crucial to the build-up of the opening goal, as Cancelo was allowed time to shift onto his natural right foot and deliver a sumptuous cross for Bernardo Silva to score the opener.

The second goal unfolded in similar fashion, as Cancelo found Silva at the back post, with the forward heading across goal for Gabriel Jesus to poke in from point-blank range.

Guardiola’s genius also shone through when his side did not have the ball.

Out of possession, City operated as a 4-2-4, with Silva and Gabriel Jesus harrying Gladbach’s centre-backs, and Foden and Raheem Sterling ensuring there was no room to play out down either flank.

Truthfully, trying to nail down a City attacker to a single position is a futile task, such was their fluid movement throughout the match.

Guardiola was accused of overthinking his tactics as City crashed out with defeat by Lyon last season, but he got it bang on against Gladbach.

The only reason it was not a total masterclass is that his side did not score more goals to put the tie entirely out of Gladbach’s reach.

2. Defensive Gladbach don’t play to their strengths

Rose's side may have been better off using a high-risk attacking set-up
Rose’s side may have been better off using a high-risk attacking set-up

After nearly half an hour of steadfast defending and generally hoofing the ball upfield, Gladbach were punished as they tried to play out from the back.

A wayward pass from within their own penalty area was picked up by Joao Cancelo, who had space and time to pick out Bernardo Silva at the back post to open the scoring.

Gladbach’s hard work was undone.

It was a pity for the hosts, who had shown glimpses of promise on the counter-attack with Alassane Plea and Lars Stindl running onto long balls.

But sitting back in a 5-3-2 shape certainly doesn’t play to Gladbach’s strengths, as they like to press and win the ball high up the pitch.

As such, manager Marco Rose may have been better off setting up to try and attack.

It’s a risky strategy against City, but Pep Guardiola’s side simply never look like conceding once they go ahead.

Indeed, Gladbach hardly got out of their own half after falling behind and looked a far cry from the team which scored 16 goals in six group-stage games.

The damage was done with City’s opening goal.

3. Jesus makes amends but City’s weak link highlighted

Jesus has not done enough to establish himself as City's centre-forward for seasons to come
Jesus has not done enough to establish himself as City’s centre-forward for seasons to come

If there is one area this magnificent Manchester City side looks the slightest bit average, it’s at centre-forward.

Gabriel Jesus had a quiet evening compared to his dynamic colleagues in attack, but when a golden chance did come his way early in the second half, his finishing was found wanting.

The Brazilian was handed the opportunity to double City’s lead early in as he pounced on a wayward back-pass, but took too long to size up Gladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer, allowing time for a last-ditch tackle to foil him as he prepared to shoot.

Admittedly, Jesus made amends 10 minutes later; even he could not miss from six yards after being teed-up by Bernardo Silva.

It takes the 23-year-old’s tally to nine goals in 25 games this season, which is four fewer than Raheem Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan, and two fewer than Phil Foden.

Simply put, his output has not good enough given the dominance of the team he is playing for.

Jesus has not had to share minutes with Sergio Aguero this season due to the latter’s persistent injury issues, but he has not taken the chance to announce himself as the Argentine’s heir at the Etihad.

Should Aguero depart when his contract expires this summer, City seem likely to invest in a new centre-forward in a bid to address their one weak link.

4. Stones misses out

City boast three of the finest centre-backs of any Champions League club
City boast three of the finest centre-backs of any Champions League club

When Ruben Dias arrived for a club-record fee of £65million last summer, it was assumed he would partner Aymeric Laporte at centre-back.

But an injury to the Frenchman presented John Stones with the chance to force his way back into Pep Guardiola’s plans.

The Englishman grabbed his opportunity with both hands and his resurgent form means he is without doubt the best English centre-back at the moment.

His remarkable record partnering Dias stands at 12 clean sheets in 15 games, with just three goals conceded.

So Stones may have been aggrieved to have settled for a spot on the bench for the game of City’s Champions League knockout-stage campaign.

Guardiola may have preferred the left-footed Laporte for the clash with Gladbach to cover the space left by Joao Cancelo as he moved into midfield.

A year ago, there was no doubt Laporte was higher than Stones in the pecking order; the situation now is less clear and Stones’ resurgent form may leave Guardiola facing key selection decisions should City progress into the latter stages of the Champions League.

5. They couldn’t, could they?

Guardiola's side are well positioned to win multiple major honours this season
Guardiola’s side are well positioned to win multiple major honours this season

No team in Europe has ever clinched the quadruple, but Manchester City are so dominant that Pep Guardiola may soon be facing questions on whether his side can make history.

The Sky Blues have 10-point lead in the Premier League, a Carabao Cup final in April and have secured progression to the FA Cup quarter-finals.

So on the domestic front, things are looking rosy.

And after two away goals in a commanding victory over Gladbach, City already have one foot in the Champions League quarter-finals.

What was once a pipe dream seems to be growing more attainable by the week as Guardiola’s relentless winning machine marches on.

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