Raheem Sterling came off the bench to provide the spark Manchester City had been waiting for as they saw off a stubborn Dinamo Zagreb side to go top of Champions League Group C.
Sterling swept home City’s first goal from a Riyad Mahrez cross midway through the second half, then helped his side wrap up the points when he set up fellow substitute Phil Foden in stoppage time.
In truth, this should have been a much bigger victory, with City wasting a host of first-half chances, but in the end they were grateful to Sterling for making the difference.
Until he broke the deadlock from close range with his ninth goal of the season, it had been an unexpectedly frustrating night for Pep Guardiola’s side, despite enjoying more than 80% of possession.
It was not the case that City struggled to create chances in the absence of the injured Kevin de Bruyne, but they were unable to take them until the second half.
Sergio Aguero was the first to waste an opportunity, with the Argentine rounding Zagreb keeper Dominik Livakovic from a poor backpass but seeing him recover with a diving save.
Bernardo Silva was also off target from two good openings and Aguero skied another effort before Ilkay Gundogan blasted a shot against the bar and David Silva fired wide from close range.
When Aguero did finally get the ball in the net, Dutch referee Serdar Gozubuyuk had already blown his whistle for a handball by Bernardo Silva.
The second half saw Croatian champions Dinamo, who were roared on by their fans throughout, put up more resistance before Sterling replaced Bernardo Silva, and quickly gave City their breakthrough.
More chances followed but it fell to Foden to finish off Zagreb with a fine first-time strike from a swift counter-attack.
It gives City their second successive Group C win and leaves them well placed to make the last 16 for a seventh successive season, while Zagreb have now suffered 13 away group game defeats in a row – a Champions League record.
Guardiola gets the result he wanted
Guardiola spoke before the game about having to «seduce» City fans who are reluctant to fall for the charms of the Champions League, preferring instead Premier League success.
So far, little seems to have changed, the competition’s anthem being roundly booed again inside the Etihad before kick-off providing the main example of that.
The atmosphere after that was far from flat, but this one-sided affair was never going to be a fixture that provided the electricity from the stands that Guardiola craves.
While City’s fans were enthusiastic enough throughout, their passion could never match that of the Zagreb supporters, who chanted throughout and removed their shirts en masse when they fell behind.
Guardiola’s emotions were also on display, with his frustration with the officials evident on more than one occasion as he prowled his technical area.
But he got the result he wanted, with City’s fifth successive win since their shock defeat at Norwich providing more evidence that, if they were ever in crisis, it is now over.
De Bruyne injury another blow to City
It is still unclear how long De Bruyne’s groin problem will rule him out for, but any prolonged absence will be a major blow to City, who are already missing their best centre-half in Aymeric Laporte.
De Bruyne missed most of last season through injury and, while City’s domestic treble clearly showed they were able to cope, his nine assists this season have been a timely reminder of his talents.
Without him, City’s midfield was still able to carve Dinamo open easily enough before the break, but you felt they missed the brilliant Belgian more when the away side dug in after the break.
Although City tried to replicate De Bruyne’s dangerous balls into the box, notably through Benjamin Mendy on the left, they were far less effective.
With Mahrez notably quieter than he was against Everton in the Premier League at the weekend, City did not carry the same threat on the ball in wide areas, at least until Sterling arrived on the scene.
Man of the match – Raheem Sterling (Man City)
Made a difference in attack immediately and should have won a free-kick as soon as he came on when he was fouled on the edge of the area. Guardiola was booked for complaining about that decision, but he was soon celebrating Sterling’s goal.
City’s next game sees them back at the Etihad to face Wolves in the Premier League on Sunday (14:00 BST).
They resume their Champions League campaign on 22 October, at home to Atalanta (20:00), when Dinamo Zagreb are away at Shakhtar Donetsk (17:55).
Magical Mahrez – the stats
- Manchester City have won five consecutive Champions League home matches for the first time.
- City completed 626 more passes than Dinamo Zagreb (727-100), also accumulating 71 more touches in their opponents’ box (73-2).
- Pep Guardiola has won all three of his Champions League matches against Dinamo Zagreb – his sides have scored nine goals without conceding.
- Riyad Mahrez has been directly involved in eight goals in eight Champions League appearances for City (2 goals, 6 assists), with three of those coming this season.
- Raheem Sterling has been directly involved in 19 goals in his past 16 home appearances in the Champions League for City (11 goals, eight assists).