After Pep Guardiola’s men were rocked by injuries, the Brazilian filled in brilliantly at the back in a morale-boosting 3-0 win over Shakhtar
Crisis over, normal service has been resumed.
Manchester City responded to the shock of Saturday’s Premier League defeat at Norwich City with a classic performance of discipline and dominance.
Familiar foes Shakhtar Donetsk were beaten 3-0, dispatched with ease yet again to make it 15 goals for City from their last four encounters with the Ukrainians.
Before kick-off, though, this appeared to be the toughest fixture of what initially appears to be a soft Champions League group.
Shorn of injured centre-backs Aymeric Laporte and John Stones, the pressure had been cranked up the pressure on Pep Guardiola’s side. City weren’t having any of it, though.
Fernandinho stepped into the defence as if he had spent his whole career there, Kevin De Bruyne returned to orchestrate the attacks and Riyad Mahrez provided intelligent and direct running.
It was the perfect reaction to that uncharacteristic Carrow Road horror-show as City comfortably avoided back-to-back defeats for the first time since Christmas.
First-half goals from Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan settled any potential nerves before Gabriel Jesus added a third after the break as City mirrored their comfortable 3-0 victory in Kharkiv last season.
It could have been far trickier against a side that had won their opening seven matches in the Ukrainian top flight, scoring 23 goals in the process.
With Stones breaking down with an injury on the eve of their Champions League opener, Guardiola was left with just one recognised senior centre-back in Nicolas Otamendi.
Luckily, the Catalan has been blessed with Fernandinho, a calming influence, a wise old head happy to take on the pressure of playing in a deeper role while at the same time taking possession of the captain’s armband.
And all of this on his first start of the season! Not that you would have known.
The Brazilian slotted into the left-side of central defensive and was soon spraying quick passes out of the backline to Mahrez, sharply switching the play, just as Laporte does at his best.
Defensively, Junior Moraes escaped him on a couple of occasions but the striker was mostly marshalled with ease.
His presence also allowed Otamendi to switch to the right, where he has been more comfortable, having been badly exposed on the left-hand side at Norwich.
By full-time there was even some good news from a defensive perspective, with Joao Cancelo getting some all-important game time as he continues his adaption to Guardiola’s system following his summer move from Juventus.
Even more encouraging was the sight of Benjamin Mendy making his first appearance of the season after the knee problems that have plagued the French full-back for the past two years.
City, overall, weren’t quite as spectacular as they were against Donetsk last October, but it was still a performance of total control.
With Rodri tidying up in front of the backline and City’s forwards pressing far more effectively, the Premier League champions were looking like themselves again.
Rodri should have put them ahead inside a minute but got his angles horribly wrong with a close-range header.
Jesus – recalled for Sergio Aguero after scoring a hat-trick against the Ukrainians in a 6-0 win at the Etihad Stadium 10 months ago – could have had another treble but was wasteful and had to settle for one goal.
Elsewhere, Raheem Sterling hit the post from a tight angle and Gundogan missed two good second half opportunities as the game descended into a training exercise.
City had gone ahead inside 24 minutes when De Bruyne’s won the round ball back on the edge of the Shakhtar box. Gundogan’s curling shot struck the inside of the post and Mahrez followed in, although confirmation was needed form the VAR as he appeared to be in an offside position.
Shakhtar could have equalised with their best chance on the night when Taison threaded a clever pass for Morales but Ederson stood strong to keep it out.
Guardiola’s side doubled their lead just before half time when the clever control and neat pass from Mahrez found Gundogan to smash in a second.
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A third finally arrived in the 76th minute when City counter-attacked with pace and De Bruyne contributed his usual assist for Jesus to score.
It’s only matchday one and Guardiola and his players will insist on caution.
However, it’s already difficult to see how City could fail to reach the knockout stages for a seventh successive season now that Fernandinho has proven himself more than capable of deputising in defence.