Ruthless Manchester City toy with Sporting to ruin home side’s big night | Jonathan Liew
José Alvalade, the man who established Sporting Clube de Portugal in the early 1900s, originally intended to study medicine, only to drop out of his Harvard degree because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. After spending two years as president of the club, he stormed out in a dispute with his fellow directors, tragically dying of Spanish flu at the age of 33. And perhaps the nicest thing one could say about Sporting’s performance against Manchester City on Tuesday night was that it was a more than fitting tribute to his legacy.
Squeamish, rancorous and over far too soon: Sporting’s big night out, their first Champions League knockout game since 2009, imploded in a bouquet of boos and a haze of basic incoherence. City did not just put the tie to bed: they embalmed it, sealed it in a lead coffin, wreathed it in chains and dropped it somewhere off the north Atlantic coast.
Long before half-time the home crowd was already being treated to chants of “you’ve had your day out, now fuck off home” from the little pocket of enraptured City fans in the bottom corner.
They did not, of course. They stayed and watched until the grisly end, even rising to salute their demolished team as the minutes ticked away. Who knows, after all, when this stadium will be able to witness a game of this magnitude again?
The manager, Rúben Amorim, has done a fine job of resurrecting this fallen giant of Portuguese football and his reward will probably be an elite club job this summer or next. Their dashing midfielder Pedro Gonçalves will get his move sooner or later. This, in a way, is the fate that awaits any club from a smaller league who dares to overachieve: growth, success, acclaim, dismemberment.
Just ask Ederson, Bernardo Silva, Rúben Dias or João Cancelo: all once teenage products of the Benfica talent factory, now turning out for the highest bidder. Perhaps that added a little grizzle to the game, given Benfica’s history with their Lisbon rivals. And certainly Silva seemed to take a certain relish in scorching his former foes to the ground: two goals in the first half, another one disallowed, and the rest of the evening spent in a sort of sadistic trance in which the aim was to humiliate as many opponents as possible.
But City’s iron fist was wrapped in a velvet glove. The spectacular strikes by Silva and Raheem Sterling will dominate the highlight packages but perhaps the most impressive element on City’s part was their guile and tactility, the way they played with time as if it were dough in their hands. Witness the little pause and feint of the eyes from Phil Foden to commit the goalkeeper before dinking the ball home for City’s third: all this around four yards from goal. Or the delicate swivel of the ankle from Kevin De Bruyne in the buildup to City’s first goal, diverting the ball to Riyad Mahrez at the very last second.
Perhaps, for all the soft-focus coverage of Amorim and his championship-winning Sporting side before the game, we should have seen this trouncing coming. One had only to glance at the two teams lining up before kick-off. While City simply stood stock still, as if this could be any match in any stadium in any city against any opponent, Sporting could scarcely contain their awe. Gonçalves breathed deeply to settle his nerves. Antonio Adán’s eyes darted all around the arena. This was new territory and these were new feelings. Amorim’s greatest quality is the intensity and fervour he manages to draw from this team. But amid a swirling and evangelical noise, it was cool heads that were most sorely lacking here.
Mahrez scored City’s first goal after eight minutes, while Sporting’s players were still appealing for offside. The second goal from Silva, a murderous half-volley off the crossbar, was a freak of nature from a freak of nature. The third goal somehow summed up Sporting’s night. Mahrez’s cross was allowed to pass through three sets of legs – Ricardo Esgaio, Matheus Reis, Sebastián Coates – on its way through to Foden, a sort of bizarre penalty‑box croquet. City’s fourth goal and Silva’s second was deflected off the backside of Gonçalo Ignácio, which again felt entirely appropriate.
Four-nil up by half-time and yet still contractually required to play out the last 135 minutes of this tie, City naturally dialled themselves down a little in the second half. Sterling smashed in a fifth goal and Oleksandr Zinchenko briefly threatened a sixth and João Cancelo played much better after a mixed first half, but all the dramatic tension had long since leaked out of the room. It was the eighth time this season City had scored five goals or more.
And curiously, this game told us very little we did not already know about them. This is the gift and the curse of the modern City: often we have no idea how they will fare in adversity because they so rarely encounter it. All we can really say with any certainty is that the road to St Petersburg in May will be paved with far sterner challenges than this.