It is not often that you find yourself so comfortable in the knockout stages of the Champions League that you can afford to bring on your veteran third-choice goalkeeper as a second-half substitute, but then this is Manchester City we are talking about.
This last-16 tie against Sporting Clube de Portugal was effectively settled as a contest three weeks ago, so devastating were Pep Guardiola’s players that night in Lisbon, rendering this second leg a non-event.
The introduction of the 36-year-old Scott Carson, making only his second appearance in a three-year spell at the Etihad and his first in this competition for 6,182 days, was the highlight of an otherwise forgettable evening and the ultimate sign of City’s superiority over the Portuguese champions.
Or was it? Carson is, after all, the only member of City’s first-team squad with a Champions League winners’ medal after being part of Liverpool’s 2005 winners, playing a quarter-final leg against Juventus that year. Perhaps this was Guardiola adding a little know-how and experience, in an attempt to see the tie out?
Perhaps, but there was never any danger of anything but City progressing, even if the night ended with only the second goalless draw to be played out at the Etihad in nearly four years.
In case you were wondering, no side had ever previously come back to progress after a five-goal first leg deficit. And Sporting were not only coming up against history, but a team who have made these opening rounds of European football’s elite club competition look like child’s play.
City have now progressed through the last-16 in each of the last five years, every season since that narrow on away goals to Monaco in Guardiola’s first year at the club. Over the five two-legged ties since, they have scored 23 and conceded just six. Not even Bayern Munich, Liverpool or Real Madrid can boast such consistency at this stage over the same period.
It is from this point onwards that things tend to get trickier, though the quarter-final hoodoo was finally broken last season on the way to the Porto final. Guardiola will perhaps hope to avoid Premier League opponents in next Friday’s draw in Nyon, given that English clubs have been responsible for their successes
An outbreak of illness and injury in City’s defense forced Guardiola into trusting a teenager at right-back. Local-born CJ Egan-Riley was handed only the second senior start of his career after an appearance in September’s EFL Cup third round win over Wycombe Wanderers. If you need to trust a novice, it helps to have a 5-0 headstart.
A pre-match tradition at the Etihad is for every member of City’s starting line-up to have their name waved on a large flag before kick-off. Egan-Riley’s inclusion clearly caught organizers by surprise, as his el flag only had a large club crest on it, but he was made to feel welcome by the crowd and a neat, early drag-back around Paulinho produced a ripple of applause.
Watching how the 19-year-old adapted to his first experience of Champions League football was about as interesting as the first half got. To say it was low on incident would be an understatement, unless you count Turkish referee Halil Umut Meler’s habit of ignoring fouls on Gabriel Jesus something to write home about.
Sporting began this tie with a reputation for compact, organized defending under their highly-rated young coach Ruben Amorim and were gradually rebuilding it as they successfully kept City at arm’s length. There was little coming the other way, though, and by the break Guardiola felt comfortable enough to throw another academy graduate on.
Even at 19-years-old, James McAtee has the talent to be starting games like these, and City found an opening shortly after his introduction. Another half-time substitute, Riyad Mahrez, cut inside from the right into the penalty area and, when the ball was briefly nipped from his toes, slipped in Jesus. The near-post finish embarrassed goalkeeper Antonio Adan.
His blushes would be spared. A quick VAR review revealed Jesus to have leaned ever so slightly offside, with the type of armpit infraction that is rarely called in the Premier League this season. It would be the closest that City came to a goal all night. Indeed, all the remaining fun to be had was at the other end.
As the final 20 minutes neared, Guardiola ordered Carson to get ready. The reception was joyous. Carson has developed something of a cult hero status around these parts for his unlikely career path and importance to the dressing room camaraderie.
The biggest cheer of the night came not when City’s place in the quarter-finals was confirmed but when he denied Sporting on their best opportunity of the night, saving one-on-one with the lively Paulinho. That would be enough to secure a clean sheet for Carson and true, total supremacy for City.