Manchester City completed the formality of qualification for the Champions League group stage with a 1-0 win over Steaua Bucharest as Joe Hart bid a probable farewell to his adoring Etihad Stadium public.
Hart was restored to the City starting XI for the first and most likely last time under Pep Guardiola, who has preferred Willy Caballero in goal during the opening weeks of the season and sanctioned a move for Claudio Bravo, with the Chile international expected to seal his move from Barcelona before the end of this week.
City’s 5-0 romp in the first leg killed both Steaua’s ambition in Manchester and the game as a spectacle, with Fabian Delph’s 56th-minute header one of the few notable pieces of on-field play.
It meant much of the focus could fall upon England keeper Hart, whose every contribution was warmly applauded by the home fans from the moment he emerged wearing the captain’s armband.
A lull in already unremarkable proceedings following Delph’s goal led to a sustained period of singing from the stands in support of the 29-year-old, who appeared visibly moved by the reception.
City’s longest serving player, who made his first appearance at this ground in 2006, had enough poise to save well from Nicolae Stanciu and Alexandru Tudorie before waving and blowing kisses to the crowd amid poignant moments at full-time.
While Hart’s inclusion stole the pre-match headlines, there was also a first appearance of the season for Yaya Toure in midfield, while 19-year-old Pablo Maffeo made his senior debut at right-back
The City keeper’s first touch and a routine pass out to Aleksandar Kolarov drew significant applause from the home support, while an uneventful opening to the match was soundtracked by chants of “Don’t sell Joe Hart”.
Kelechi Iheanacho warmed Valentin Cojocaru’s palms in the ninth minute after having a pass fizzed into his feet by Kolarov, while Toure whipped a free-kick past the near post shortly afterwards.
Cojocaru made further routine saves from Nolito and Delph as the match ambled towards half-time.
Delph extended the Steaua keeper significantly for the first time 10 minutes into the second half as he surged on to a cute Iheanacho pass and the England midfielder broke the deadlock a minute later.
Iheanacho was involved again, cutting a pass back for Jesus Navas to chip in a pinpoint cross that Delph gleefully headed home.
Guardiola then took the opportunity to send on City academy products Tosin Adarabioyo and Angelino for Champions League debuts, with John Stones and Nolito the men to make way.
Hart seemed genuinely touched by choruses of “Stand up if you love Joe Hart” and “Once a Blue, always a Blue” but any notion of a tearful goodbye was put on hold as he sharply kept out Stanciu’s free-kick and Tudorie’s close-range attempt from the resulting corner – the sum of a belated and brief Steaua rally.
Guardiola’s immediate concern will be an apparent calf injury that curtailed Iheanacho’s evening but, for Hart and the fans he has played in front of for the past decade, this felt more like a time to look back and appreciatively reflect.
Key Opta stats:
– Manchester City’s 6-0 aggregate victory over Steaua is the joint second biggest recorded since the introduction of the Champions League play-off round in 2009-10.
– Indeed, it is only eclipsed by Borussia Mönchengladbach’s 9-2 aggregate win against Young Boys achieved on Wednesday.
– Man City have kept four consecutive clean sheets at home in the Champions League (including qualifiers) for the first time; successively shutting out the opposition for 228 minutes.
– Joe Hart completed all of his 16 passes against Steaua Bucharest, the only starting player to have a 100 per cent passing accuracy.
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