Raheem Sterling is just on another planet these days, isn’t he? The numbers frighten to the point that he can lay claim to being labelled the best winger in Europe right now. Of that there is absolutely no doubt.
So this hat-trick, another for the collection, makes it 37 Manchester City goals since the start of last season. Laying on twice for Sergio Aguero takes his assist tally in that time to 22, as well.
Atalanta were bludgeoned by Sterling on Tuesday night, all three goals coming in 11 blistering second-half minutes and more evidence that he is at the peak of his powers earlier than expected.
Raheem Sterling was on blistering form at the Etihad Stadium with a stunning three goals in 11 second-half minutes
The England international also set up Sergio Aguero’s two first-half goals in a simply world-class Champions League display
Sterling went home with the match ball and could’ve scored a fourth as he put City on the cusp of qualifying for the next stage
Sergio Aguero scores from the penalty spot in the 38th minute after Raheem Sterling was fouled by defender Andrea Masiello
MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER RATINGS
MANCHESTER CITY (4-3-3): Ederson 7; Walker 6, Fernandinho 6, Rodri 6 (Stones 41, 6), Mendy 6 (Cancelo 71, 6); De Bruyne 8.5 (Otamendi 68, 6), Gundogan 7.5, Foden 8.5; Mahrez 7, Aguero 8.5, Sterling 9.5
Subs not used: Bravo, Jesus, B Silva, D Silva
Manager: Pep Guardiola 7
ATALANTA (3-4-1-2): Gollini 5; Toloi 5, Djimsiti 5, Masiello 5 (Pasalic 46, 6); Castagne 6, De Roon 6, Freuler 6, Gosens 6; Malinovskyi 7; Ilicic 7 (Hateboer 72, 6), Gomez 6.5 (Muriel 46, 6)
Subs not used: Sportiello, Arana, Ibanez, Barrow
Manager: Gian Piero Gasperini 6
Referee: Orel Grinfeld 6
Pep Guardiola’s team selections tell us as much. For a team that is rotated heavily, Sterling barely ever watches from the bench. Even with all their firepower, they just cannot do without him.
Still only 24, he is already a superstar, one of the finest forwards in world football. Less than a handful of wingers boast a better minutes-per-goal record than him and it is for that reason Sterling should genuinely be involved prominently in the Ballon d’Or discussion.
Sterling laughed off comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi earlier this week and while he is right to distance himself from that, he is definitely among the chasing pack.
All three goals were scored assertively and just the tonic after Guardiola claimed his team had not been clinical enough of late. It might have been four, but for a miss one-on-one towards the end. We can forgive him that.
An icon off the pitch, a leader on it. It is not hard to see why so many brands are falling over themselves to offer him new deals and want his name associated with them.
‘All the credit is for him,’ Guardiola said, keen for praise to be diverted away from himself. ‘Raheem is perfect. His physicality is amazing. The day after the game he can play another one. Defensively he helps us a lot too. An extraordinary player. He has that desire to get better.’
Only catastrophe would prevent City progressing through to the Champions League knockout stages for a seventh consecutive year. In truth, Group C was always there for the taking. Atalanta gave them a brief scare after going ahead after 28 minutes, Ruslan Malinovskyi stroking home a penalty after Josip Ilicic went over Fernandinho’s trailing leg. After that it was one-way traffic.
Phil Foden (second, right) was sent-off late on by referee Orel Grinfeld after two cynical fouls resulting in yellow cards
The Argentinean striker celebrates scoring his, and City’s, second goal of the evening at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday
The 31-year-old was quickest to Sterling’s cross as he nipped in ahead of the Atalanta goalkeeper to equalise for City
The other issues were Rodri – chosen at centre-half again – departing before half-time with a hamstring injury, and an unfortunate red card for Phil Foden. Guardiola hopes Rodri’s complaint will only keep him out for 10 days or so but mystery still surrounds a knee problem sustained by the absent Oleksandr Zinchenko.
Foden’s sending off, eight minutes from time, appeared slightly harsh. Two bookings for innocuous fouls, but they would not take the shine off an elegant performance. Once again Foden belonged when afforded a chance.
His 58th-minute assist for Sterling’s first was instinctive, quickly changing his feet to find a team-mate just yards from goal. Others would have swung a leg. Not Foden. That, and not the red card, is what his night will be remembered for.
‘We thought we’d have opportunities to run and Phil has this quality, box-to-box,’ Guardiola said. ‘He still has a lot to improve. He doesn’t have to prove anything to me. I was the guy who was in the academy who said: ‘Come and play with us. There is no person who trusts him more than me.’
City were behind for only seven minutes and turned the game completely on its head within 14. Sterling was at the centre of the equaliser, clipping a marvellous cross between central defenders to find the ghosting Aguero. Foden, Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan were all involved.
In the 28th minute, Atalanta number 18 Ruslan Malinovskiy sent Ederson the wrong way to give the visitors a shock lead
Aguero had also seen one effort tipped wide and blazed another chance way over the bar after brilliance by Foden, the teenager dancing around two defenders on the byline with a frightening low centre of gravity.
Speaking of which, Sterling drove towards goal, ducking and weaving a way through, to end up felled by Andrea Masiello. Another penalty. Another Aguero goal, swept into the left-hand corner seven minutes before the break.
There was a certain irony that Guardiola had to finally call on a central defender, John Stones, to partner Fernandinho when Rodri went off. Stones was scolded by his manager for not appearing properly prepared. Not that it mattered, City ended up running away with this.
De Bruyne stormed into Atalanta’s box, lifted his head to see Foden – bursting to score – eight yards out. Foden was closed down too quickly to shoot, instead using two-touch skills from the small-sided Rondos to lay on for Sterling to hammer in.
Sterling’s second was a product of Gundogan’s precise throughball before he then raced clear with 21 minutes remaining to scorch home City’s fifth.
More numbers if you like. That is 47 goals for club and country in 14 months. It is 16 in 17 games this season. Sterling is a phenomenon.