After coming off the bench to add the third in this comfortable 4-1 win over Club Brugge, Sterling is now the fourth highest English scorer in Champions League history, his 22 goals behind only the tallies of Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes and Frank Lampard.
Records like that are why Sterling believes he is more than just a bit-part player, but Pep Guardiola, of all people, does not doubt his talent. The message has always been to prove that he deserves regular minutes in the limited opportunities he does get and, for the first time in two-and-a-half months, he has a goal to support his argument.
That may be the greatest consequence of a victory that does not secure City’s passage to the knockout stages, yet all but seals it. Another point against either Paris Saint-Germain or RB Leipzig will be enough for Guardiola’s side to guarantee qualification.
On this evidence, that should not be much of a problem, even if Brugge at times made things more difficult than expected.
To describe City as dominant before the opening goal would be an understatement. Brugge struggled to string more than a handful of passes together, instead retreating to the edge of their own penalty area, apparently hunkering down for the night. Their first meaningful foray into City’s half came nine minutes and 58 seconds in. It felt like City could be ahead in half that time.
They were. Joao Cancelo went close first, smacking the upright after a delicately-threaded through-ball by Jack Grealish. The ball was recycled and, after Phil Foden was initially denied by an impressive one-handed Simon Mignolet, it was sent out wide to Cancelo again. While Mignolet wandered too close to his near post, Foden peeled off for the far, correctly anticipating that his left-back’s low cross would find him in plenty of space to apply the finish.
A quarter-of-an-hour gone, Brugge could not have made things any easier for City but that would quickly change. Not only did they eventually become more solid and compact in their narrow shape, they also began to counterattack. Their second meaningful foray into City’s half, only two minutes after Foden’s breakthrough, resulted in an equaliser and a moment to forget for John Stones.
The own goal was not Stones’s fault. He could not do much to get out of the way of the ball as it bounced up off Bernardo Silva, hit him in the head and looped in. Brugge earned that slice of luck, though, for forcing City onto the back foot. Charles De Ketelaere’s neat downward header was almost converted by Hans Vanaken, moments before De Ketelaere kept the move alive to force the ball in off Stones.
From there on until the break, Brugge were arguably the better side. City still dominated possession but without penetration, unable to break through Philippe Clement’s deep and disciplined lines while the visitors found joy on the counter. A turn and shot by De Ketelaere, just after the half-hour mark, was well held by Ederson but a better chance than it seemed from the relatively comfortable save.
While Brugge were precise, City were sloppy. Even though there was the odd cute flick, long spells of possession in the final third came to little. It was not dissimilar to the Palace defeat, in truth. They could not be as blunt and aimless in the second half but they were fortunate to see De Ketelaere take a leaf out of their book by shanking a presentable chance wide, having been played in behind nine minutes after the restart.
That, finally, was the wake-up call required. Within seconds, City were up the other end and though Riyad Mahrez was frustrated when no teammate was on hand to convert a low, right-wing cross to the far post, he was determined not to make the same mistake. The Algerian was alive and alert as Cancelo sent a return ball in from the other flank and, while evading Stanley Nsoki, he knocked a free header in.
With their foothold in the game taken away, Brugge’s stiff resistance began to fall away. City returned to being the dominant force of the opening stages and Guardiola’s thirst had not been sated. Gabriel Jesus replaced the muted Grealish, and grabbed the fourth with the final kick, though it was Sterling who had the main impact from the bench.
His goal was a simple finish, really, one that any member of Guardiola’s attack in that position would be expected to score but it could still be an important confidence boost. It was made by a delightful Foden pass, breaking the Brugge line to play in Ilkay Gundogan, who squared for Sterling to convert into a half-guarded net.
It was the type of goal that Sterling specialised in during Guardiola’s first title-winning seasons, when he was a central figure in City’s masterful attack. He will hope this is the start of him regaining that status.