Manchester City secured top spot in Champions League Group F as Raheem Sterling’s late goal gave them victory over Dutch champions Feyenoord in a subdued encounter at the Etihad.
Having beaten Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team 4-0 in Rotterdam, the expectations were that City would win handsomely, but having made seven changes they were not at their fluent best against better organised opponents.
With Sergio Aguero having missed a number of chances and Yaya Toure firing a free-kick just wide, it looked like the game was heading for a goalless draw until Sterling broke through the visitors’ defence via a one-two with Ilkay Gundogan and finished neatly.
It preserves their 100% record after five matches of this season’s Champions League, extends their unbeaten start to the overall campaign to 19 games and gives Guardiola his 50th win as City boss, in just his 75th game.
City could also have been looking at a first defeat of the season had Sam Larsson and Steven Berghuis shown greater composure in front of goal, the latter striking the bar with a rising shot from close range in the second half.
With Napoli beating second-placed Shakhtar Donetsk 3-0, City can travel to Ukraine on 6 December knowing even a defeat cannot deny them a last-16 tie in which they play the home leg second. Although holders Real Madrid are one potential opponent.
Tuesday’s result also allows Guardiola to rest players for a game that immediately precedes the Premier League leaders’ trip to second-placed Manchester United.
They will definitely be without influential midfielder Kevin de Bruyne for the final group game after the Belgian picked up his second yellow card of this season’s competition to incur a one-game suspension.
This may well offer an opportunity for one of the stars of England’s Under-17 World Cup-winning side, Phil Foden.
The midfielder made his debut for the final 15 minutes of Tuesday’s game as a replacement for Toure, who at 34 is twice the age of the player dubbed ‘the Stockport Iniesta’.
There was also a second City appearance for 18-year-old Spanish midfielder Brahim Diaz, who replaced the goalscorer in injury time.
Sterling ensures a comfortable group finale
Sterling’s goal was a welcome but somewhat redundant final flourish from City on a night where numerous changes and rare off-colour performances led to a much more low-key display than those to which Etihad regulars have become accustomed.
Goals from Lorenzo Insigne, Piotr Zielinski and Dries Mertens in Naples had already assured City of top spot, even with a point.
But Guardiola sets high standards and his growing frustration was clear to see as City passes went astray and shots flew wide.
Aguero, one of the seven changes, was culpable, putting a shot and header off target in the first half before seeing a close-range effort blocked after he broke the offside trap to collect a ball over the top.
Bernardo Silva should also have done better when he was found in the box by Sterling but tamely shot straight at the Feyenoord keeper, former Middlesbrough and Liverpool player Brad Jones.
But with the rapid and now ruthless Sterling on the pitch, City have a weapon to tear through any defence.
His run was timed perfectly, Gundogan’s pass equally so, and the lifted finish over the onrushing keeper into the far corner judged perfectly.
Mangala back in the spotlight
The growing consensus, both at home and abroad, is that this is a City side largely devoid of weakness. Their 2-0 win at Leicester on Saturday prompted Foxes boss Claude Puel to join Napoli’s Maurizio Sarri in the opinion that Guardiola’s team are the best in Europe.
Meanwhile, BBC pundits Martin Keown and Garth Crooks were waxing lyrical about them in the Final Score studio, with both saying they can match Arsenal’s Invincibles team of 2003-04 by going the whole league season unbeaten.
However, one potential chink in their armour could be exposed through the loss of defender John Stones to an injury that will potentially sideline him for the 12 games City play over the next six weeks.
The loss of a player who has shone this season, both in his defensive work and distribution, leaves City with three fit centre-backs.
One of those – Vincent Kompany – was understandably rested on Tuesday having only just returned from the latest in a long run of injuries, leaving Nicolas Otamendi to be partnered by the much-maligned Eliaquim Mangala, a man City were keen to move on in last transfer window.
The Frenchman did all that was asked of him, making four clearances and three interceptions to help preserve a clean sheet that could easily have been lost but for the away side snatching at the opportunities afforded them.
Foden gives a glimpse of the future
Heralded as one of England’s most talented young footballers, much is expected of 17-year-old Foden.
He was named player of the tournament as England won the Under-17 World Cup in India this summer, scoring one of his country’s five goals in the final.
A natural number 10, it just remained to be seen if and when Guardiola would give the player his chance at a club that has not afforded many to their own young academy products in the recent past.
He only had time to make 19 passes during his brief cameo but he completed all but one of them.
He now just has to work out how to force his way past the likes of David Silva, Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne and into City’s star-studded attacking midfield.
There was encouragement afterwards from his boss.
“Hopefully they [Foden and Diaz] will keep growing,” said Guardiola. “They are still young. We do not need to speed up the process of growing, just to stay calm.
“Today has been their first Champions League game and we will see as we go along – they will keep training with us, they will keep playing. I will put them on the pitch and we will see in the future.
“They are young talents, only 17-18, but our squad is not too big, and we will see what happens in the next games but hopefully they will stay for a long time and help us to do well at the club.
“I am the one who puts them on the field but the guys who deserve the credit are the guys who work with them for the last few years – all the managers and team-mates who have played with them, they are responsible, the reason why they made their first appearance.”
Raheem Sterling of Manchester City was Man of the match.