This may have been a dead rubber in all intents and purposes for Manchester City but Pep Guardiola’s side nevertheless ensured that they would qualify as winners of Group C with a perfect record, crowning this comfortable 3-0 victory over Olympique Marseille with a much-welcome goal for the returning Sergio Aguero.
City were already guaranteed to top the group but a sixth win from six and fifth clean sheet was ideal preparation for Saturday’s Manchester derby at Old Trafford as their faultless European campaign is put on hold until February and attention turns to a domestic campaign still in need of some improvement.
Ferran Torres opened the scoring in the second half, maintaining his impressive record in front of goal in these first few months of his Etihad career, and Raheem Sterling added a third goal late on at close range but Aguero’s first goal since the opening round of Champions League games will have especially pleased Guardiola.
Aguero was named in the squad for the first time since aggravating the knee injury that has plagued him since the summer and could be seen nursing himself better with a cup of Bovril during the first half. There is every chance he will be doing the same at Old Trafford on Saturday but his scoring cameo at least suggested he could make an impact off the bench if needed.
Guardiola’s line-up offered clues to his selection for Saturday, if few surprises. Kevin De Bruyne, Sterling and Gabriel Jesus were predictably named among the substitutes. Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan started and Kyle Walker returned after missing the win over Fulham at the weekend but otherwise, this was the second-string that Guardiola has opted for in Europe since qualification was assured a fortnight ago.
Even so, City began brightly. The closest they came to a first-half breakthrough saw Walker use his upper body strength to win the ball deep in Marseille territory and Bernardo Silva’s disguised pass then found Mahrez. The Algerian’s shot was beaten away by Steve Mandanda, the former Crystal Palace goalkeeper, at close range and Aymeric Laporte went close with a free header minutes later.
There was a setback for City on the half hour mark when Eric Garcia was forced off with a suspected hip injury. Guardiola was forced to replace his young defender with John Stones, who has enjoyed something of a renaissance of late and did his chances of a third consecutive league start at Old Trafford on Saturday no harm.
Stones denied Valére Germain the opportunity to put Marseille ahead, sliding in to block a close-range effort after City had failed to properly clear the danger, while stand-in goalkeeper Zack Steffen had to be alert when Pape Gueye slipped past Laporte at the end of the first half. City’s concentration was slipping but, once both sides re-emerged, Stones had a hand in the opening goal.
Raul is now the only Spaniard to score more Champions League goals than Torres before turning 21. The summer signing from Valencia has enjoyed himself in a false nine role during this group stage, scoring his sixth in City colours after Stones and Bernardo combined to set Mahrez loose on the right. Mahrez stepped inside, teasing the Marseille full-back until he could slip Torres past the defensive line for a composed finish at close range.
Aguero doubled the lead when Mandanda failed to handle Nathan Ake’s towering header from a Phil Foden corner. It was one of the easiest chances ever presented to City’s all-time leading scorer and the same could be said of the third. Mandanda struggled to hold onto the ball once more, spilling Torres’s shot and when a rebound hit Alvaro, Sterling was on hand to tap in.