Brilliant Sterling comes of age as City comeback snatches top spot
Man City 4 Borussia M'gladbach 2
It was not a final, it was not in the Nou Camp or San Siro and perhaps you might say the result did not matter very much. However, for Raheem Sterling, this pulsating, enthralling encounter was one of the reasons he went through several agonising months tearing himself free of Liverpool.
Even if Sterling had not scored twice in a minute to take Manchester City through to the business phase of the Champions League in first place, this would have been a memorable performance. That he scored twice on his 21st birthday and City qualified as group leaders gave the night a dusting of magic.
The first, which drew Manchester City level, was a scrappy affair but the second, a minute later was a gorgeous drive, finishing off a move begun by David Silva and Wilfried Bony - an indication of the class that was judged worth £49m.
By then, Borussia Monchengladbach, who had led City in both group matches, were battered and exhausted. Bony pushed through to score a fourth.
As the news that Manchester United had lost and Seville had beaten Juventus drifted around the stadium, it was hard to imagine the night could become much sweeter. Manuel Pellegrini had said that for Manchester City to top their group for the first time would be a sign of progress. It is hard to argue.
The fact that Manchester City were already through to the knockout phase of the competition ensured deep patches of empty blue seats, although there were still more than enough spectators to howl down the Champions League anthem.
Despite knowing the only prize on offer was a place in the Europa League, thousands had made the journey from the Rhineland. Many had spent the day at Manchester's sprawling German-themed Christmas market and they were prepared to boo Kevin De Bruyne, a former Wolfsburg player, every time he touched the ball. Unlike their nearest and not so dearest at Old Trafford, they could be reasonably relaxed about the outcome. Although Borussia Monchengladbach would be taking no further part in the Champions League, they had climbed from 18th to third in the Bundesliga under their new manager, Andre Schubert, and had just beaten Bayern Munich. The omens suggested it might be an entertaining evening in the Manchester rain and, for once, the omens were not wrong.
The first two goals were lovely things. City's came first and was created by an exceptional back-heel from Sterling to David Silva. The angle was tight and with covering defenders, the danger to the Germans' goal did not seem desperate but Silva accelerated and smashed his shot into the roof of Yann Sommer's net. Silva's game is supposed to be all about grace, beauty and touch but there was raw power in his drive.
It put Manchester City ahead for only a few minutes. There were as many City defenders around Fabian Johnson, one of several footballers born to American servicemen who have become fixtures in Jurgen Klinsmann's United States team. Johnson kept driving down the left and sent over a deep, low cross that Julian Korb met with as much power as Silva had done.
The contest did not calm down. De Bruyne almost deflected Sommer's clearance into harm's way. Fernandinho, through sheer grit, transformed a loose pass from Yaya Touré into a cross that might have brought more than a corner while Sterling, preferred to Wilfried Bony, celebrated his 21st birthday with a fine performance.
One of the highlights was a shot from the edge of the area that whistled just over the Monchengladbach bar.
However, Manchester City without Vincent Kompany always seem vulnerable and, from another counter-attack, Monchengladbach seized the lead.
Their goal carried a bit of luck, however. The ball was deflected out to Oscar Wendt on the left who drove in a fierce cross that Johnson deflected forward. Raffael, who had seen Joe Hart save his penalty at Borussia Park in September, was quicker than Aleksandar Kolarov to the ball. Hart has saved Manchester City many times in the Champions League but this was entirely beyond him. After the interval Borussia were pressed harder and harder into their own half. Several times it appeared they would crack, especially when Nico Elvedi, one of the three teenaged stars of their victory over Bayern, tried to chest Fernandinho's cross back to his goalkeeper and almost let in Sterling.
Moments later, football's most expensive Englishman, who is coming of age at the Etihad Stadium, dispatched two shots. One was straight at Sommer, the other produced a brilliant, one-handed save. He would have other presents, of course, but you sensed what Sterling really wanted for his birthday was a goal and he soon delivered. (© Independent News Service)