Boos are an established part of the Champions League matchday experience at the Etihad Stadium, as the reception granted to the tournament anthem – as frosty as the March wind whipping through the ground during Manchester City’s 7-0 demolition of Schalke – once again demonstrated.
For City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, it became the early soundtrack to a stellar night’s work. Being born in Gelsenkirchen, only to turn out for Schalke’s sworn enemies Borussia Dortmund and win the Bundesliga is not an act to be swiftly forgotten.
Gundogan’s duties on wide set-pieces meant he fell into the away fans’ casting of pantomime villain. If the Germany international’s current contract impasse rumbles on, he might one day experience similar catcalls from a presently appreciative Eastlands public.
Pep Guardiola has made it known an offer is on the table for Gundogan to remain at City beyond his terms that expire at the end of next season; the player is clear he will bide his time as, at 28 years old, he probably has one more significant career move remaining.
When answering media questions, as he did in a slightly awkward briefing alongside Guardiola on the eve of this match, the playmaker gives off the air of a considered thinker and this is not a decision to be rushed. The injury woes that have stained fine career means he knows better than most how fleeting and precocious ones time in elite-level football can be.
After scoring in Dortmund’s Champions League final defeat to Bayern Munich in 2013, Gundogan was restricted to 57 minutes in the Bundesliga the following season and missed Germany’s triumphant World Cup run.
Guardiola was convinced enough by his talents to make Gundogan his first City signing, despite a broken patella that ruled him out of Euro 2016. Midway through the 2016-17 season, his curse struck again in the form of a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament.
The road back to fitness was gruelling; the path to top form even longer. Guardiola’s zipping and fizzing passing machines take time to incorporate new or unfamiliar parts.
— Ilkay Gündogan (@IlkayGuendogan) March 11, 2019
But Gundogan was deliciously at the heart of things on Tuesday as his detractors in the away end belatedly abandoned their boos as an exercise in futility.
Guardiola has previously praised his maiden signing for his instinctive feel when it comes to breaking into the penalty area and scoring goals. However, City again showed they are not lacking in that regard and Gundogan’s current brief is pivotal.
Behind the rotating cast of quadruple-chasing attackers, Fernandinho is the usual fulcrum. To borrow a favourite Guardiola expression, the Premier League champions rarely seem “stable” without him.
Since the Brazilian hobbled out of the EFL Cup final against Chelsea, it is to Gundogan’s immense credit that he has barely been missed over the course of four consecutive wins – 12-1 the aggregate score.
When Schalke still harboured hopes of the improbable, City’s midfield anchor knocked them off course.
A smart reaction and impeccable body positioning – one of Guardiola’s obsessions – saw Gundogan knock Suat Serdar off balance as he looked to play through Breel Embolo and a counter-attacking opportunity was gone.
Bastian Oczipka had more luck down the City left shortly afterwards, only for Gundogan to dart back and clear his cross. Oczipka’s next significant involved was being left by Raheem Sterling, who chased Gundogan’s exquisite chip into the box and backheeled for Sergio Aguero to score in the 38th minute.
Aguero had already put City in front from the penalty spot three minutes earlier, after Bernardo Silva was fouled scampering onto another delightful sand wedge from the Blues’ number eight.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) March 12, 2019
It is this mastery of short and long passes, along with knowing when to slow down and quicken the tempo that means Guardiola is keen to force Gundogan’s hand – preferably with a pen in it and towards a particular piece of paper.
A second-half throughball with the outside of his foot, almost allowing Leroy Sane to score his second of the night, was probably only suitable after the watershed.
City were taking their cues from Gundogan, who had completed 92 per cent of 137 passes by full-time. Sterling cushioning a brilliant half-volley in for 4-0 before Bernardo Silva, hometown hero Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus got in on the act.
Calm, considered and clinical, Gundogan laid the foundations for a hitherto rare evening of Champions League knockout-stage revelry in east Manchester. While others wonder why on earth he would want to be anywhere else, an accomplished footballer will clearly adopt exactly the same approach when deciding his next move.
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