THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

This probably is the best team

Pep Guardiola is a hard man to please. Manchester City went away for the first leg of a Champions League knockout game, scored twice, kept a clean sheet, had 61% of the ball, limited their opponents to just one shot on target, and extended their winning streak to 19 games. And what does he say afterwards? "We have to be more clinical."
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Presumably Sergio Agüero's return from injury will go some way to reassuring Guardiola that greater clinicality (clinicalism? clinicity? pick your favourite) is on the way. But meanwhile, Plan B - have the short lads score headers - seems to be working just fine. 5'7" Raheem Sterling at the weekend, 5'8" Bernardo Silva here. Nobody thinks to mark the short lads.
And City, even if they weren't perfect in front of goal, were close to perfection everywhere else, as João Cancelo continued to establish himself as the world's finest and perhaps only playmaking full-back. This wasn't a hammering but it was confident and controlled, and Gladbach, who scored 16 goals in the group stage, never looked like scoring here. Except right at the end, when Rodri played a silly no-look pass across his own midfield. That wasn't great.
City are, of course, prone to extreme weirdness in this competition, so we must be careful. But looking at the field after the first round of games, it seems clear that of all the superpowers, they're the strongest at this stage. Juventus lost to Porto, Real Madrid barely scraped past ten-man Atalanta, and while Bayern and PSG are sitting on convincing leads, they are rather inconveniently trapped in actual title races back home.
(Also we have a sneaking suspicion that Bayern can't defend. if you want to bookmark this and come back with insults at the end of the season when they win absolutely everything again, you are more than welcome.)
This all adds up to one thing: it's time to start saying Quadruple again. "Quadruple!" It's a fun word. Obviously you won't get Guardiola to tempt fate like that, not when he's only halfway through drafting his special 3-1-1-5 formation for the semi-finals. But he did find the time to explain just why City have been able to put together this extraordinary run of 19 straight wins and counting.
We have a lot of money to buy a lot of incredible players."
That, friends, is the greatest tactic of them all.

'We have money to buy incredible players' – Guardiola on winning streak

Here come the fun police

This should have been the game of the round. In one corner, Real Madrid: aristocrats, superstars, vulnerable, no Benzema, and a bench full of children. In the other, Atalanta, everybody's favourite punchy upstarts, and perhaps the most purely entertaining side in Europe.
As long as Atalanta don't get a man sent off in the 17th minute or anything. That would be a disaster.
Was it a red card? Well… maybe. One of those where you can see what the referee is thinking even though, as a neutral, you really wish they were thinking something just a little yellower. Ferland Mendy helpfully provided retroactive justification by scoring from twice the distance with his wrong foot, so it seems likely that a shot of some kind was coming.

'Bad performance, good result' - Zidane on Real's win over Atalanta

But hope remains for Atalanta, from two sources. One: they have a 100% away record in the Champions League this season. 4-0 against Midtjylland, 1-0 against Ajax, and 2-0 against (an admittedly weakened) Liverpool. If we know anything about science, they'll win 3-0 in Madrid.
The other reason for hope is that Madrid were, frankly, a bit rubbish. Mendy's winner was gorgeous but it came after 86 minutes of huffing and puffing, passing the ball sideways and backwards and sideways again. Atalanta manager Gian Piero Gasperini even found time to bring on Josip Iličić, have an argument with him, and bring him off again.
Two and a bit weeks from now, Real Madrid injury crisis may have abated a touch. They may even be able to play somebody other than Isco up front. But Atalanta will have 11 again, a win to chase, and a simmering sense of injustice. This one isn't over. It's a game of four halves.

The ballad of Dele Alli

Yes, yes, yes. The Europa League. Relatively soft opposition. A big squishy cushion from the first leg. But let's weigh all that against the lack of game time and obvious lack of managerial trust, call it even, and agree that yesterday, against Wolfsburger, Dele Alli put together a really good advert for Dele Alli.
Spectacular goal? Check! Dreamy cross? Check! General industriousness and all-round effectiveness? You guessed it. It's odd that in his absence he seems to have become viewed as a luxury player of sorts. This is a footballer that held down a spot in a Pochettino side. You have to be able to run around a bit for that. You have to be able to put a foot in here and there.
Anyway, even José Mourinho was impressed. While you were all oohing and aahing over the bicycle kick, he (an intellectual) was paying attention to higher things.
We could, if we were feeling vinegary, suggest that those are the words of a man who has realised that playing the good footballers he has hanging around might be the key to keeping his job. But it's a nice morning, so we'll just enjoy the fact that we might get to watch a bit more of Dele Alli as the season concludes. He's an interesting footballer that does useful and fun things with a football. More of that.

'To have Dele back at this level is amazing' - Jose Mourinho on Dele Alli

IN OTHER NEWS

He must have a foot like Jurassic Park.

HAT TIP

Time for a spot of legal drama. The Athletic's Adam Crafton has the details of an extraordinary argument between Turkish giants Fenerbahçe and broadcaster beIN. The club's players having been wearing beFAIR t-shirts to protest alleged bias, the TV company are suing the club, and the entire SuperLig may be caught in the crossfire.
Over recent months, Fenerbahce have appeared to question the integrity and neutrality of beIN Sport as a broadcaster. This includes the suggestion that beIN has intentionally provided camera angles that would damage Fenerbahce when VAR decisions are made by officials, the allegation that beIN has removed positive Fenerbahce phases of play from highlights packages, and a purported belief that beIN has instructed their commentators to criticise Fenerbahce players. BeIN denies these allegations.

RETRO CORNER

Happy birthday to Park Ji-sung, the first Asian footballer to win the Champions League. History will probably remember the man-marking job he did on Andrea Pirlo back in 2010, but he was a lot more fun at PSV.

COMING UP

A whole load of Europa League, including Arsenal's home leg against Benfica (1-1 on aggregate) and Leicester's home leg against Slavia Prague. That one's goalless so far. Alternatively Manchester United, four goals up from the first leg, might pick an exciting youngster or two. Watch the next Adnan Januzaj play the last one!
Tom Adams will be here tomorrow to tell you all about Mikel Arteta's Entertainers, and other matters arising.
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