Avoiding "some of the big guns" by finishing top of Group D was a 21st-birthday bonus for Raheem Sterling after his match-winning showing against Mönchengladbach.
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It was his 21st birthday, but Raheem Sterling gave the whole blue half of Manchester something to celebrate last night.
By scoring twice in a minute against VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach, Sterling took City from 2-1 down after 79 minutes down to 3-2 up after 81 in an eventual 4-2 triumph which was enough to lift them to the top of Group D, thanks to Juventus's defeat at Sevilla.
If 21st birthdays were, in times past, the moment to receive the keys to the door, the hope for Sterling is that qualification in first place – for the first time – will provide the key to unprecedented progress beyond the round of 16.
In each of the last two campaigns City, as group runners-up, were paired with Barcelona in the last 16 and were eliminated but Sterling is hopeful of a kinder draw this time. "It was just about trying to avoid probably some of the big guns in the next round and try to get a good draw," he said. "We know we can probably do it over two legs against most teams and we are just waiting for the draw now and will see who we get and take it from there.
"It gives us massive belief," he added. "We all know this is a team that is going to score goals. We just have to be more solid on the whole and keep more teams at bay."
Only time will tell whether this was a coming of age for City in the competition – and they will have to defend better, as he said – but for Sterling it was arguably his most decisive display since that big-money transfer from Liverpool last summer. Certainly the timing could not have been more important for a team facing a fourth defeat in six games as the clock ticked down.
The England forward had already set up David Silva's opening goal with a delicious back-heel touch. Sterling was operating on the left of a three-man City attack in an unaccustomed 4-3-3 formation and had plenty of scope to attack. "It is always good not always defending and having a little bit more rest period up front," he noted afterwards, and it was the birthday boy who led the fightback in the second half after Julian Korb and Raffael had struck for Gladbach.
He was foiled three times by Yann Sommer, notably when his fizzing volley drew a flying save by the Swiss goalkeeper, but, with Gladbach pinned back, eventually got his reward, first with tap-in from a Gaël Clichy cross and then a terrific shot on the run from Bony’s pass.
By this stage Bony and Jesús Navas had joined the attack, Bony completing the scoring on a night Manchester United's elimination gave the home fans something else to smile about.
"I am just happy I could have helped the team," Sterling added. "The team really dug deep today and showed great character to come from behind and get the winner. When they scored the two goals in the first half it was disappointing but we kept it together and I knew if we kept working hard and playing the football we know we can play – the fluent, free-flowing football – we could score some goals.
"The results haven't been going our way in the last few games. We were really trying to make it right."