Manchester City 4 Club Bruges 1
Manchester United are not alone in going into the Manchester derby grateful for the exploits of a Portuguese in the Champions League.
João Cancelo’s exploits may have been less dramatic than Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-gasp intervention against Atalanta but his hat-trick of assists put Manchester City on the brink of booking their spot in the last 16 for a ninth successive season.
Their ninth consecutive Champions League win at the Etihad Stadium may not rank as the most memorable but, on a night when others struggled to fashion chances, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus benefited from Cancelo's service, Raheem Sterling garnished victory and City's mini goal drought was over.
Club Bruges had benched the striker Bas Dost and reinforced the defence with the centre back Stanley Nsoki. This was a damage-limitation exercise and a five-man rearguard grew in numbers when others dropped in alongside them. City were able to advance to the final third without encountering any opposition.
Bruges weathered the first 13 minutes with only two minor alarms, when Foden miscued a volley wide while Ilkay Gündogan also failed to make a clean connection, with the backpedalling German shooting into the side-netting.
Weight of pressure nevertheless told when City struck first, with Bruges suddenly overwhelmed. Jack Grealish supplied a lovely, defence-splitting pass to release the overlapping Cancelo, who beat Simon Mignolet but curled a shot against the far post. Mignolet denied Foden once but, all within a couple of minutes, City's false nine had a tap-in from Cancelo's low centre.
It was City’s first goal for three games and, if that statistic feels unusual, there was a further surprise when their lead was immediately cancelled out.
It has not been a particularly distinguished few days for their centre backs. Aymeric Laporte’s traumatic afternoon against Crystal Palace, when he was culpable for a goal and sent off, means he is suspended for Saturday’s Manchester derby and may in turn have prompted Pep Guardiola’s decision to rest Rúben Dias.
The result was that John Stones partnered Laporte and, unwittingly, he levelled for the Belgian champions. After Ederson had clawed Hans Vanaken's half-volley away, Charles De Ketelaere crossed, the ball looped up off Bernardo Silva's foot, struck the luckless Stones in the face and flew in. Many a player may dream of scoring in the Champions League, but only the pessimists could imagine it would be in such a manner.
But it encouraged Bruges. Their rare forays forward came with a sense of purpose and when the Scotland defender Jack Hendry directed a header at Ederson and De Ketelaere's low shot was held, they had mustered three of the first four efforts on target.
As Mignolet reached half-time without making a save, City wrestled with the familiar problem of how to break down a packed defence. Gündogan and Silva got into promising positions in the box, only to pick out an opponent, while Hendry made an invaluable intervention from Kyle Walker’s low cross. But, not for the first time, Cancelo, the playmaker disguised as a left back, looked as likely as anyone to create a chance.
Indeed, Cancelo’s persistence and incision eventually brought another breakthrough. Before then, Mignolet’s belated first stop came in the second minute after the restart, with Mahrez denied when Grealish had released him. Then a motionless Mignolet watched Cancelo’s deflected shot fly past the angle of post and bar while, when the Portuguese found Laporte, his downward header was held by the goalkeeper.
His second assist then came in distinctly unorthodox fashion after a strange one-two. Mahrez had turned away in disappointment at his own misdirected cross. It transpired it was so bad it was good. Cancelo collected the loose ball, crossed and Mahrez headed in what was his sixth Champions League goal against Bruges.
If that explains why Guardiola recalled him, a warning had come a minute earlier, along with further evidence of City's susceptibility to the counterattack. The elusive, impressive De Ketelaere evaded Stones to meet Clinton Mata's pass, but prodded a shot into the side netting. The visitors acquitted themselves off the field, too, with the Bruges fans rising in applause in the 63rd minute for Guido De Pauw, the 63-year-old City fan who was in a coma after being attacked following their meeting two weeks ago.
Sterling's goals have been such rarities that his previous 30 City appearances had produced just two but, three minutes after coming on, his second of the campaign was a simple finish. Foden released Gündogan, who centred unselfishly for the substitute. It meant Guardiola could concentrate still more on the trip to Old Trafford, with Silva and Foden among those removed as Cole Palmer and Jesus came on. And, after a surging solo run from Cancelo, the Brazilian sidefooted in City's fourth.