Manchester City had to battle to beat Croatian visitors Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday night at the Etihad. Englishmen Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden grabbed the goals on a night that saw City controversially denied two penalties after VAR checks. Here’s what we learned from a business-like performance in Manchester…
Phil Foden is a Natural Goalscorer
For over a year now, Phil Foden has been described as the heir apparent to David Silva. One of City’s greatest ever players, Silva has built his reputation as a tricky, diminutive attacking midfielder, focusing on ball control and ingenious passing to progress his side. While it’s a big ask to expect Foden to reach the same status as a club legend as Silva has, there are clear similarities in the way the two play and the former taking the latter’s place next season is not unlikely.
However, there is one area where Foden could go on to exceed El Mago – in front of goal. Silva has never bagged more than twelve times in a single season for City, while Foden managed seven last season in a fraction of the minutes. His striking instincts were on full display once again in his cameo against Zagreb, too, as he sealed the deal with a delicious finish on his weak foot just moments after coming on. Given a full season as a regular starter, Foden could be the finest goalscoring English midfielder since Lampard retired.
VAR is Still Imperfect
At first, for most in sky blue, VAR sounded like an absolute Godsend. This was around the time City fans had just watched Ashley Young wipe out Sergio Aguero inside the penalty area in the Manchester Derby with no punishment, and not long after James Milner committed a clear foul in the box on Raheem Sterling in a crucial Premier League game and got off scot-free. We were desperate for change. But what we’ve ended up getting is inconsistent and run by people too timid to disagree with one another.
In this match, there was the blatant handball in the Zagreb penalty area committed by Théophile-Catherine. We have been told by referees that, for all intents and purposes, a handball in the box will now result in a penalty unless the arm is in a natural position. This wasn’t the case here, but Nicolas Otamendi conceded a penalty last season with a hand much closer to his body. So where’s the consistency? UEFA surely must pick a rule and stick with it.
Joao Cancelo Shows his Potential
Make no mistake, our number 27 is here to conquer the world. We have two of the best right-backs in world football, but while Kyle Walker has already reached his peak, Cancelo has years ahead of him. In this game he grabbed his start with both hands and was, I thought, very good. Considering the plan was clearly to overload the left side, Cancelo still managed to be productive when he got the ball and even showed off his attacking skills with one great lung-busting run past the fullback and another top-class cross to the head of Aguero.
Our new signing reminds me of Danilo with how ready he always is to join the attack, and not just on the overlap – in the centre too. With a better cross from Kun, it could even have been a first City goal for Cancelo late on. If the Portuguese keeps playing this way, I think it’s a matter of time before that goal comes.
Raheem Sterling is a Gamechanger
Even the best players must sometimes start on the bench at Manchester City, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. After all, we’ve seen at Barcelona and Real Madrid the perils of having a talisman like Messi or Ronaldo starting every important match. It’s better for us at this time to have a more balanced and rotatable squad. With that said, our setup is only useful if the players on the bench can actually make a difference once they’ve been subbed on. Raheem Sterling, who’s now so good that even pundits have stopped denying it, did just that.
In truth the game was getting concerning before Sterling came on. I wasn’t the only fan in the Etihad glancing nervously at the clock, at the 0-0 scoreline, wondering if either number would change before the final whistle blew. Once Raheem stepped onto the pitch I needn’t have worried. He was excellent, urging the City players back to life with his energy and drive, and got his rewards without having to wait long. People still tell you he ‘only scores tap-ins’, but my response is this: A player who scores twenty-five tap-ins a season is infinitely more valuable than one who scores ten screamers. Give me Sterling over three Alexis Sanchez’s any day of the week.
Our new record signing is an absolute titan. Watching Rodri live is like watching a beautifully crafted robot designed specifically to play the defensive-midfield position in a Pep team to perfection. He just gets everything right. Against Zagreb- once again- he was composed, brave, progressive, defensively valuable and intelligent in his passing. You can see the way he dictates the play in a more literal way than almost any other player. If Rodri decides he wants City to overload the left side he’ll make it happen, not just by telling his teammates but with the choices he makes when moving the ball. Then, out of nowhere, the play is switched and City are breaking free down the right. Sterling’s goal- and the win- wouldn’t have happened without Rodri’s beautifully weighted pass into Mahrez.
I’m not old enough to remember Pep Guardiola playing, but I imagine Rodri is a pretty good representation of what he was like. However, I certainly am old enough to have seen plenty of Sergio Busquets and, to me at least, there’s an obvious parallel between the two Spaniards. Neither are particularly fast, so they’ve decided to use their brainpower to conquer competitive football. If Rodri is this good at the age of 23, I can’t imagine how high his ceiling could be.
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