City playing by their own rules as Basel are swept away by Blue wave
Basel 0-4 Manchester City
Away games are meant to be difficult, especially in the knock-out rounds of the Champions League, but this Manchester City team are no longer playing by football's usual rules.
Here in Basel they turned a challenge into an exhibition that should really have been six or seven.
What was so impressive about it was that City did exactly what Guardiola promised they would try to do, imposing their game on the opposition in their home ground. This is a Swiss fortress, the national stadium, but City took control in the first half and never let go. The noisy home crowd and the freezing temperatures made not the slightest bit of a difference.
Nor did a competitive opponent who beat Manchester United here back in November. This was, for want of a better phrase, typical City, their 16th away win of a remarkable season This kills the return leg at the Etihad Stadium on March 7 and effectively puts Manchester City into the quarter-finals.
They will have to play far better teams than Basel but then when City went to United and Chelsea this season, they dominated and won those games too. Of course they are not unbeatable anywhere - just ask Liverpool.
Vincent Kompany said before this game that the City players are not thinking about the quadruple, simply about re-setting and focussing for every single game they play. But they are playing so well as a team now - the patterns so ingrained, the execution so precise - that Wigan Athletic on Monday, the League Cup final at Wembley and then a busy March should not hold too many worries for City.
What was so impressive about this City performance was that it was not like Sergio Aguero's four-goal binge against Leicester City on Saturday, or any number of barely believable Kevin de Bruyne masterclasses this season. This was a proper team performance, everyone working in unison, keeping the ball and cutting Basel open with almost every attack.
The stand-out player was Ilkay Gundogan, who came into this season after nine months out injured but is now finally finding his rhythm again. There is no such thing in football as a David Silva replacement, but Gundogan's movement and control has given City back something in the middle of the pitch.
He nearly scored a header after two minutes, nodded City in front soon after anyway, curled in the sumptuous fourth and should have completed his hat-trick at the end.
The weight of games has started to tell on some of these players recently but here City welcomed back three first-teamers to lighten the load ahead of another crunch month. Fabian Delph has been out for a month with a knee injury but returned at left-back and played the full 90 minutes. Silva, out for two weeks, came on for De Bruyne for the last half hour. And Leroy Sane, just 16 days after injuring ankle ligaments in Cardiff, played 35 minutes, defying the initial diagnosis. All of a sudden the City squad looks stocked again.
And yet despite all of this, the dominance and the eventual result, there were two moments in the first 10 minutes when it fleetingly felt as if City might be in for a test here.
All the space they leave in behind was exploited by Dimitri Oberlin, who raced onto one through ball, beat Ederson to it, but skewed his finish. The next time Oberlin was through, Nicolas Otamendi flattened him in the box but went unpunished.
But there is no other team like City for ripping a game away from the opposition before they even realise what has happened. That is what happened here, with three goals in a nine-minute spell.
The first was from a set piece, as De Bruyne whipped in a corner, Gundogan darted to the near post away from Fabian Frei and angled his header up into the net.
The second was a more classical City incisive move, cutting through Basel's deep 5-4-1 arrangement. Raheem Sterling ran down the left, released by De Bruyne, and crossed to the far post. There was Bernardo Silva, with the time to take the ball down and volley it back past Tomas Vaclik, dipping through the Basel keeper and in.
Two away goals in five minutes is as dispiriting as it gets, and the Basel's players' heads dropped, and the third followed. Fernandinho stormed through the middle, and when he was tackled by Leo Lacroix the ball fell to Aguero. Tweny-five yards out, he had enough time to pick his spot in the bottom corner.
And when you have your opponent pinned like this, why would you let up? City continued to play the same way in the second half, pressing, passing and attacking. And it worked, and nine minutes after the restart they had their fourth.
Aguero found Gundogan on the edge of the box. He controlled the ball with his first touch, took it away from Frei with his second then curled it into the far top corner of the net with his third.
Independent News Service