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Manchester United are not alone in going into the Manchester derby grateful for the heroics of a Portuguese in the Champions League. João Cancelo’s exploits may have been less dramatic than Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-gasp intervention against Atalanta but his hat-trick of assists put Manchester City top of Group A and on the cusp of booking their spot in the last 16 for a ninth successive season.
An ultimately emphatic scoreline was facilitated by the full-back who doubles up as a playmaker and, when he hit the post, was almost a scorer as well. “He is playing incredibly well all season,” Pep Guardiola said. “He is in a special place, having a special ability to do something good.”
Cancelo is still less celebrated than his compatriot. Ronaldo awaits City on Saturday and Guardiola said: “They have one of the best players in history, a guy who is a scoring machine, but we will have a plan.”
Club Brugge, who conceded to Cancelo two weeks ago, will be glad to see the back of him after Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and the substitute Gabriel Jesus capitalised on his service to secure City a ninth consecutive victory at the Etihad Stadium in the Champions League.
“Good game, good victory,” said Guardiola. “We need one more point [to qualify] or three to be first and we will try to do it. People took the piss [out of] me for saying today was more important than United but this was incredibly important.”
He felt vindicated after an evening that served as fine preparation for the trip to Old Trafford. “If they want to play tomorrow we will play tomorrow,” said Guardiola, who was pleased to see Raheem Sterling on the scoresheet for his club for only the third time since February. It came during a second half that Guardiola described as “really good”.
Underwhelming in a first period of sterile domination, City had passages when they seemed to lack the chemistry and creativity to break down Brugge’s packed defence. Yet if Guardiola prefers a team where everyone is a midfielder of sorts, he prospered because his phalanx of technicians included a defender. City had failed to score against West Ham and Crystal Palace but their drought ended here.
Cancelo almost opened the scoring himself by latching on to Jack Grealish’s defence-splitting pass and curling a shot against the upright. A minute later, he provided a low centre and Foden got the night’s first tap-in.
His second assist came in distinctly unorthodox fashion, courtesy of a strange, long-range one-two. Mahrez had turned away in disappointment at his own misdirected cross. It transpired it was so bad it was good. Cancelo collected the loose ball, centred and Mahrez headed in. Guardiola had recalled him, perhaps with the opposition in mind: Mahrez has now scored 14 Champions League goals and Brugge can rue the fact that six were against them. He is in the curious position of being City’s top scorer but not in their strongest side. He has been displaced by Jesus, and the substitute sidefooted in the fourth in injury time after a surging solo run by Cancelo.
The one goal he did not supply was the sort City have scored frequently. It was almost a trademark Sterling goal, as he arrived unchecked to meet Ilkay Gündogan’s low cross, except for the reality his previous 30 club games had produced just two strikes.
City had looked impotent in a first half when Simon Mignolet did not make a save. Guardiola argued: “I don’t know if we can play better than the first 20 minutes, honestly.” Foden told a different tale, saying that at the break: “The manager wasn’t happy. We changed a couple of things and hurt them a lot more.”
Brugge were pained by the final score. Their manager, Philippe Clement, lamented: “Four-one does not truly reflect the match we had today. It was an exaggerated score.” His team contributed a lot, particularly because of the sharpness of the elusive, impressive Charles De Ketelaere, who looked to exploit City’s frailties against counterattacks.
It made for another awkward night for the home centre-backs. Aymeric Laporte’s traumatic afternoon against Palace, when he was culpable for a goal and sent off, means he is suspended on Saturday.
That prompted Guardiola’s decision to rest Rúben Dias and John Stones partnered Laporte and, unwittingly, he levelled for the Belgian champions. After Ederson had clawed Hans Vanaken’s half-volley away, De Ketelaere crossed, the ball looped up off Bernardo Silva’s foot, struck the luckless Stones in the face and flew in. Many a player may dream of scoring in the Champions League, but only the pessimists could imagine it would be in such a manner. But another City defender has rather more reasons to cherish memories of this game as Cancelo trebled up.
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