Manchester City moved five points clear at the top of Group C in the Champions League with a 5-1 victory on Tuesday
Raheem Sterling might not be keen on comparisons to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo but he will have to get used it even he continues to perform like this in the Champions League.
Manchester City were in the midst of another sloppy European performance when the England forward took control.
Surprisingly trailing to Italian rookies Atalanta, City scored five goals in 35 minutes and Sterling’s fingerprints were all over each of them.
It was exactly the sort of impact of that comes from Messi and Ronaldo when the going gets tough – and it has been now the sort of response you expect from Sterling.
Since his Champions League debut for City in September 2015, he has had a hand in 29 goals in the Champions League (18 goals, 11 assists) – more than any other English soccer professional in that time.
Within six minutes of falling behind to Ruslan Malinovskyi’s penalty, Sterling delivered a perfect cross that Sergio Aguero finished from eight yards out.
And four minutes later he darted into the box and was caught with a clumsy challenge from Andrea Masiello – Aguero converting the penalty.
Sterling cut loose himself in the second half.
He rounded off a brilliant team goal to virtually kill off the tie midway through the second period, before clinically finishing two more in the next 10 minutes to claim a hat-trick.
There was even time to beat the offside trap and drag a shot inches wide before the final whistle.
That miss was more the talking point for team-mates Riyad Mahrez and Benjamin Mendy when the trio walked off smiling at the final whistle.
City are now five points clear at the top of the Group C with a perfect record of three victories.
Another win away at the San Siro in two weeks’ time would ensure a place in the knockout stages for a seventh consecutive year.
The only downside on the night was that youngster Phil Foden won’t be making the trip to Milan after picking up a red card in the dying minutes of the victory.
It was a disappointing end to the 19-year-old’s first start in either the Champions League or Premier League this season.
Foden took every opportunity to impress manager Pep Guardiola – claiming an assist for Sterling’s opener.
He showed his composure when, with the opportunity to shoot from just eight yards out, he calmly rolled the round ball across for Sterling to smash into the roof of the net.
Foden was lively all night, linking up instinctively and dangerously with De Bruyne and Aguero.
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The Argentine could have had his own hat-trick had he finished another cleverly crafted opportunity by Foden, when he escaped a challenge on the by-line and pulled the round ball back, only to see Aguero’s shot sail over the bar.
But Foden blotted his evening when he picked up two unnecessary, but deserved, bookings – an incident that was not expensive on the night and one he will learn from.
Guardiola might not believe that City are ready to win the Champions League, but Sterling and Foden – dismissal aside – are out to prove him wrong.