Manchester City shedding growing pains under strict Pep Guardiola

Pep Guardiola has played down City’s threat in Europe but a 7-0 hiding of Schalke means they must assume mantle of Champions League contenders

This last-16 tie was over by the interval, a feat achieved in seven minutes when Manchester City scored three times and did some of the growing up Pep Guardiola wants his team to do.

This was his mantra going into the match: that to mature from “teenagers” to Champions League men Schalke had to be dispatched and City sure of a place in Friday’s quarter‑final draw.

The description was Guardiola’s neat way of tempering expectation in the buildup. The reality, though, is he was hired to take City to the promised land of European Cup glory and what this would do to their status: start to raise it towards being true aristocrats of the continental game.

Hearing Guardiola constantly talk down City’s chances in the competition can seem faintly ridiculous. This is a club with a billion-pound investment and a manager who can draft in Bernardo Silva – a £42m buy – to cover for Kevin De Bruyne’s injury-ravaged campaign and the midfielder be one of City’s players of the year. Even here, in the absence of the suspended Nicolás Otamendi, and the not-match-ready Vincent Kompany and John Stones (the latter a replacement), Guardiola could choose the Copa Libertadores-winner Danilo at centre-back.

Yet the manager’s stance has some truth. If Porto may be cited as a club with far fewer resources who still pulled off their 2004 triumph, they are hardly regulars in the semi-finals where Guardiola believes City have to take up near permanent residence to be taken seriously and have a chance of writing the kind of history Real Madrid, Milan, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Ajax possess. All have claimed the cup four times, at least.

His argument is weakened by this being City’s eighth consecutive season in the Champions League, and a sixth occasion the knockout stage has been reached.

Here they settled straight into the rhythmic pass-and-move style that threatened to show Schalke scant sight of the ball. Yet until the goal flurry – from minutes 35 to 42 – City struggled to find a high gear. Two or three times the German side retrieved the ball and broke, the sight of this having Guardiola complaining to his assistant Mikel Arteta sitting by his side.

If City are still callow in Europe, Guardiola’s players as individuals surely are not. One who makes a bid in most matches to be the main man is Raheem Sterling. After his match-changing hat-trick against Watford on Saturday, Sterling twice created havoc against Schalke. First, he glided through the centre and left lime-green shirts scattered around him. Then, he drove hard and fast from the right-hand side at Ralf Fährmann’s goal and when Sergio Agüero received he should have finished.

Guardiola spoke of how City were below par in the first half against Watford and they were threatening to register another iffy 45 minutes. He and Arteta were unhappy at positioning and the use of the ball – Bernardo Silva coming in for some fierce Guardiola instruction. Factor in David Silva’s touch also being loose and the disgruntlement was understandable.

Schalke’s eagerness to harry also played a part in making City disjointed and so relief flooded all sky-blue enthusiasts when Jeffrey Bruma brought down Bernardo Silva and Agüero executed an expert Panenka penalty. If that annoyed Fahrmann, Agüero’s second finish really cheesed off the goalkeeper when the striker shot home through his legs from near point-blank range. This put the tie at 5-2 and by half-time Leroy Sané had added another and City were safely into the quarter-finals.

This is a second year on the bounce Guardiola has achieved this and no team will want to face them. He warned beforehand of how last week Manchester United did a number on Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax the same to Real Madrid. So if a mark of adolescence is a refusal to listen, Guardiola can be pleased with how his side performed.

City need to win the Champions League to come of age: it may happen this season.