Raheem Sterling Stoops to Conquer Brighton With Manchester City Hat-Trick
On the horizon where beauty and sadism meet, Manchester City tore Brighton to ornate, sumptuous shreds. It was luxurious, it was cruel, it was pointless and yet in a strange way seemed to mean everything. Everyone knows that City’s biggest battles lie further afield: in the Champions League, and in the Lausanne courtroom where they will learn their fate on Monday. And here, with nothing tangible to play for in the league, City could simply play for the joy of playing, abetted by an opposition more than happy to let them do so.
Raheem Sterling bagged a hat-trick, Gabriel Jesus and Bernardo Silva added one each, but by then everyone was having too much fun to keep counting. For all the muted celebrations and multiple substitutions, giving the whole affair the feel of an international friendly against a small island nation with a precious vote on the Fifa executive committee, City’s intensity was irrepressible and irresistible. Perhaps, on reflection, this is the best way to enjoy Pep Guardiola’s baroque creation: no fans, no background noise, no forced narratives. Just football as its own lavish end.
“Raheem’s getting better, even the finishing, the quality of the shooting, he has improved a lot,” Guardiola said ominously. For the manager this was another opportunity to groove new combinations and drill old ones. The famous front five we knew about: Sterling looks back to his best, thriving off the service from Riyad Mahrez and Jesus alongside him, Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne to the rear. All five might conceivably have scored here. But curiously, even in this goal-studded victory the most encouraging signs were further back.
In defense the nascent partnership between Aymeric Laporte and the teenager Eric García is blossoming into something very special indeed. If García is still occasionally vulnerable in direct duels – Aaron Connolly brushed him aside a little too easily at one point here – then he more than compensates with decision-making and technical qualities that already verge on the elite. With the quietly excellent Rodri again pulling the strings, City’s core looks well-equipped for another assault on the title next season.
And so with the game quickly tilting in one direction, it was to the surprise of nobody that City eventually found a way through in the 21st minute. Mahrez was allowed time to clip a long raking ball to Jesus up front, who cleverly cushioned a header into Sterling’s path. Sterling took a look, took a touch, and curled the ball low into the bottom corner. And for all the desperate lunging and chasing, at no point in this sequence of events did a Brighton player get even remotely close to making a challenge: a perfect socially-distanced goal that said as much about Brighton’s docility as it did about City’s ability to elude them.
Still the bombs kept raining in. Jesus clattered the bar. Mahrez curled just wide after another lightning break. Two minutes before half-time, the towering Rodri got ahead of Adam Webster to flick on De Bruyne’s corner, giving Jesus the easiest of tap-ins at the far post. And when Sterling grabbed his second goal, a simple header from Mahrez’s unchallenged cross to cap a relentless start to the second half from City, even the cardboard cutouts at the Amex Stadium could have been forgiven for leaving early to beat the traffic.
Probably if not quite mathematically safe, Graham Potter’s side remain a gloriously flawed machine: polished and expansive, probably the most attractive side in the bottom half, and yet still liable to keel over at the slightest breeze.
Sort the defence out and there’s a potential top-10 side in there. But it will need a few new personnel and perhaps even a culture shift, for right now they are the sort of team you relish playing.
By this point the wheels really were beginning to come off. Bernardo Silva burgled a fourth after Mat Ryan spilled his initial shot, and finally the punchline: Sterling completing his hat-trick, albeit one he knew little about, the ball hitting his head and trickling over the line as he crumpled to the turf in a heap. It was that sort of game for City. It has been that sort of restart, really.
The Guardian Sport