Pep Guardiola hailed Raheem Sterling as an “extraordinary” talent after his 11-minute second-half hat-trick helped Manchester City demolish Atalanta and maintain their 100% start in Champions League Group C.
Sterling is City’s leading scorer with 12 goals in 13 games in all competitions this season and this latest ruthless display demonstrated again what a potent finisher he has become.
Guardiola feels there is even more to his game than just his goalscoring however, explaining afterwards: “His physicality is incredible. He is strong – the day after the game, he could play another game – his regeneration is incredible.
“He can play both sides and he is fast so, defensively, he helps us a lot. He is an extraordinary, extraordinary player.”
Sterling’s treble, which followed a first-half Sergio Aguero double, turned this game into another emphatic statement of City’s attacking power but it was a far from perfect evening for Guardiola.
Rodri limped off with a hamstring injury before half-time and Phil Foden was sent off for the first time in his career for two late bookings.
There was another reminder of City’s current defensive vulnerability too, when a Ruslan Malinovskyi penalty gave Atalanta a surprise lead after Fernandinho clumsily fouled Josip Ilicic.
City, who began with an unfamiliar three-man defence, had shown some early uncertainty at the back and took time to get into their stride going forward.
But Aguero quickly levelled from close range when he ran on to Sterling’s in-swinging cross and the Argentine fired City ahead from the spot before half-time after Sterling was fouled by Andrea Masiello.
Sterling took over goalscoring duties after the break, firstly when he rounded off a fine move involving Riyad Mahrez, Kevin de Bruyne and Foden.
By now Atalanta’s defence had completely crumbled and Sterling soon took full advantage, running on to an Ilkay Gundogan pass and cutting inside past Rafael Toloi before finding the net.
Five minutes later Sterling made it 5-1 when he ran on to a Mahrez cross, and he should have added to his tally before the end when he fired wide after running clear.
Foden, making only his second start of the season, saw red eight minutes from time after being booked for dragging back Marten de Roon as he shaped to shoot.
The 19-year-old’s first yellow card had come six minutes earlier when he tangled with Malinovskyi in midfield, and appeared harsh.
It remains to be seen how serious Rodri’s injury is, but Guardiola showed his frustration as John Stones prepared to replace him, slamming the back of one of the seats in his dugout.
He did have some good news, however. Shakhtar Donetsk’s draw with Dinamo Zagreb earlier on Tuesday means a win in Italy when these two sides meet again on 6 November will seal City’s progress to the last 16 for a seventh successive year.
City still have defensive difficulties
Earlier this week Guardiola called on his side to be more clinical in front of goal if they are to go deep into the competition this season, but it is their displays at the back that should be a more pressing concern.
Although he had two centre-halves on his bench in the shape of Stones and Nicolas Otamendi, Guardiola opted to play with three at the back against Atalanta, with a converted midfielder, Fernandinho, at the heart of his new-look backline and Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy on either side.
Rodri and Gundogan were supposed to give protection in the centre of midfield but the experiment did not work, with Atalanta finding all sorts of space down both flanks.
By the time the Italian side took the lead, City had already survived one scare when Robin Gosens escaped down the left and Timothy Castagne headed over from six yards.
A better team would have punished City, and Guardiola must go back to the drawing board to find the answer at the back, while any absence to Rodri will also give him a problem to solve in midfield.
Foden ‘will learn’, says Guardiola
Guardiola emphatically ruled out punishing Foden for his red card, the first of his fledgling career, instead focusing on his impressive performance in midfield before he was sent off.
“Will I fine him? Absolutely not,” Guardiola said. “I have never fined a player except for when they did stupid things but for this part of the game, absolutely not. Maybe I should pay him, because of how well he played.
“The important thing with Phil is not the red card, it is the way he played. We know it – he can do it – and he played so good, at a high level.
“Now he will know after having one yellow card that he has to be more careful for the second but this experience is good and it is going to help him.
“People say ‘you have to play him more minutes, more minutes’. Yes I want him to play but there are still things like this where he is far away from David Silva, Ilkay Gundogan or Kevin de Bruyne.
“He will learn. He has to live this kind of situation to understand that, with a yellow card, he has to be careful. Because the result was 5-1 it was OK, but if the score is 2-1 or 3-2 it can be difficult.”
Man of the match: Raheem Sterling
It is back to the Premier League for City and they can narrow the gap on leaders Liverpool to three points – for 24 hours at least – when they host Aston Villa at 12:30 BST on Saturday.