Jesus toils as City survive group-stage stodge against familiar foes

By Dom Farrell at the Etihad Stadium 27 November 2019 3
Jesus toils as City survive group-stage stodge against familiar foes

Much of Manchester City's Champions League encounter against Shakhtar Donetsk felt like a case of familiarity breeding torpor.

A 1-1 draw sent City into the last 16 as Group C winners with a game to spare, while Shakhtar held their spot in second. And yet describing any element of Tuesday's action as celebratory would be a stretch.

Drawn together in the round-robin phase of Europe's premier club competition for a third consecutive season, the respective champions of England and Ukraine treated the Etihad Stadium to a contest with all the intensity of a weekly five-a-side knockaround between work colleagues.

While City's back-to-back 3-0 wins in Kharkiv stand among the best they have produced under Pep Guardiola on the road in Europe, the contests in Manchester have proved diminishing spectacles.

In September 2017, Shakhtar posed plenty of questions of City as Bernard and Fred – sure to be success stories in the Premier League – impressed before Kevin De Bruyne found a brilliant, game-breaking opener early in the second half. Raheem Sterling could only make the points safe in the final minute.

Last season, an over-matched Shakhtar were walloped 6-0 as Gabriel Jesus scored two penalties in a hat-trick. Three days earlier, Southampton had lost 6-1 on the same ground.

The 2019-20 version of City do not presently pack the same thrill. De Bruyne was still the man poking and prodding the visitors, but his deliveries into the box generally met orange-clad limbs and heads, with Jesus straining at the leash for his chance to impress in Sergio Aguero's injury absence.

Feeding off scraps, the Brazil international was unable to make his case convincingly and might have fancied squaring off against the more laissez-faire defensive efforts of his own team.

Shakhtar made a habit of targeting the left-hand side of City's defence with raking passes - diminutive left-back Angelino the focus of their fascination.

Ederson scurried from his box to meet one such inquisition, only to miss the ball entirely. In keeping with contest, Tete sauntered towards the unguarded net bereft of urgency and Fernandinho slid in to clear his eventual shot.

A favourite from his time at the club between 2005 and 2013, Fernandinho was again warmly received by the Donetsk contingent and it is easy to see why affection endures for such a formidable footballer.

Thrust into an unfamiliar role due to City's failure to replace Vincent Kompany and a long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte, the 34-year-old now seems relatively secure as Guardiola's first-choice in the heart of defence.

He has found himself marshalling a backline under unexpectedly regular siege. This is perhaps best explained by the fact a defence including Fernandinho cannot be protected by Fernandinho the holding midfield lynchpin.

A City engine room featuring Rodri and opening goalscorer Ilkay Gundogan is easy on the eye but perhaps as much for opponents as spectators at times.

Guardiola teams are at their best when the pressing is frenetic and, not for the first time in recent weeks, City were unimpressive out of possession. Angelino's struggle under long balls was only as concerning as the frequency with which they were allowed to arrive.

De Bruyne unpicked the lock in the 56th minute, leaving Jesus to bundle untidily but effectively through the front door and porch before laying the ball on a welcome mat for Gundogan.

Recent editions of this fixture suggested City would power away, but Tete and Dodo combined to expose their brittle left flank and substitute Manor Solomon slammed in a 69th-minute equaliser.

There concluded the scoring in a formulaic Champions League group stage encounter devoid of the jeopardy that Shakhtar's final matchday showdown with Atalanta will mercifully feature.

Guardiola would bridle at the suggestion, but this felt like City marking time before the cut-and-thrust of the knockout stages in the new year, where the return of Laporte and Leroy Sane must bring back the devilment.

Going through the motions was enough to go through as group winners; it will not do if Guardiola is to complete his trophy collection in Manchester.

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