From Raheem to Brahim, it was a night for Manchester City to celebrate the development of young players. Raheem Sterling scored the winner against Feyenoord to maintain their 100 per cent start to the Uefa Champions League. Brahim Diaz came on for his debut in the competition, the 18-year-old midfielder joining 17-year-old Phil Foden on the pitch as the younger teenager made an assured City bow.
“Big congratulations to the academy,” said Pep Guardiola. The move to the City Football Academy was designed to provide the best facilities to produce players. City’s age-group sides have excelled in recent years but the last step is always the hardest, to break into a side containing world-class footballers. They are in the ideal position to learn, if not to play.
But the fact City have secured top spot in Group F with a game to spare could afford each an opportunity against Shakhtar Donetsk in December, especially as Kevin de Bruyne is suspended. A run of 15 games in 48 days could afford opportunities. City’s older generation are excited by the youngsters emerging.
There was a changing of the guard – or a changing of the Guardiola – when the 34-year-old Yaya Toure was replaced by Foden.
The boy named the best player in the Under 17 World Cup has an admirer in the four-time African Footballer of the Year. "He's going to be the future,” said Toure, who believes Foden will be best served by remaining at the Etihad Stadium.
“Sometimes you have great players coming because Man City is such a strong team - a powerful club who can buy players - but I think he must stay here and learn from the big players, like [David] Silva, Kevin, [Ilkay] Gundogan, Fernandinho – all those players are going to give him more experience and confidence for the rest of his career. I hope we will see a great player in the future."
Toure’s view was instructive. It was notable that while Guardiola described the young midfielders as “huge talents,” he preferred to praise those who have helped them in the formative years of their careers.
City try not to get carried away. They often prefer to deflect attention elsewhere, wary of the dangers of hype. Diaz and Foden were escorted through the tunnel after the game, neither talking to the media. If they fail to live up to their considerable potential, it will not be because the club have encouraged them to embrace the trappings of stardom.
Sterling can testify that the path is not always smooth. Fame and infamy can go hand in hand, even if the latter is undeserved. It can be harder to attract headlines by demonstrating a commitment to improve. Scoring goals is a way, however, and a decider against Feyenoord made him the first City player to score in four consecutive Champions League games.
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Three of those have been late strikes and, adding to an equaliser against Everton and a 97th-minute winner at Bournemouth, this was further evidence he can provide decisive, dramatic contributions.
“He’s enjoying scoring important goals,” Guardiola said.
Sterling is also enjoying scoring more goals. The 22-year-old forward equalled his career-best tally of 11 on November 21. It used to be a theme of Manuel Pellegrini’s that he wanted the winger to be more prolific; he has proved so under Guardiola and few have benefited more from the Catalan’s coaching.
His latest strike, completing a one-two with Gundogan, was made by the timing and angle of a run in the inside-right channel. It was completed by a finish that was reminiscent of Sergio Aguero.
Guardiola believes Sterling can still improve, but this was a sign he has improved rapidly.