Raheem Sterling marked his 21st birthday with a decisive brace as Manchester City secured top spot in Champions League Group D by overpowering in-form Borussia Moenchengladbach 4-2 on Tuesday.
With 10 minutes left City trailed, goals from Julian Korb and Raffael having cancelled out David Silva’s 16th-minute opener, but a stunning late surge by the hosts saw Sterling strike twice in two minutes to put City in charge before substitute Wilfried Bony added a fourth.
It lifted Manuel Pellegrini’s side above Juventus, beaten 1-0 by Sevilla in Spain in the other group game, and meant that Gladbach missed out on even the consolation of a Europa League berth.
“When we had the draw in August, everyone said that was the ‘death group’, with all the best leagues in the same group, so to qualify two games before (the end) was very important and if we can win the group, it’s better,” Pellegrini told BT Sport.
“We played not so good the first half, but we did brilliant in the second half.”
City’s failure to secure top spot in the group cost them dearly in the previous two seasons they reached the knock-out phase, when they lost twice to Barcelona in the last 16, but they will now approach Monday’s draw safe in the knowledge that neither Barcelona, Real Madrid nor Bayern Munich will await in the next round.
Gladbach had beaten Bayern 3-1 on Saturday, becoming the first team to do so in the Bundesliga this season, but three days on they find themselves out of all European competition after the first defeat of coach Andre Schubert’s 13-game reign.
“We are disappointed on one hand, but we are happy that we have produced some good performances and represented Germany well in this difficult group as newcomers,” Schubert said.
With Sergio Aguero still nursing a heel problem and Bony starting on the bench, Sterling led the line for City at the Etihad Stadium and after an early scare when Korb shot over, he created the game’s opening goal.
Receiving the ball on the left-hand corner of the area, Sterling released Silva with a cunning back-heel and the Spaniard lashed the ball high past Yann Sommer at the near post for his first goal since August 10.
But it took the visitors just three minutes to draw level as Fabian Johnson swapped passes with Lars Stindl before driving into the box and squaring for Korb, who bludgeoned home right-footed.
Fabian Delph gave City a chance to restore their lead with an inviting cross from the right, but it evaded Sterling at the far post and a minute later Gladbach were in front, albeit in slightly fortuitous circumstances.
Oscar Wendt’s pull-back from the left was mishit by Johnson, but Raffael, ambling across the ball’s trajectory, managed to nudge it past Joe Hart with his knee.
City made a slow start to the second half, but before long the visitors’ goal was under siege, Sommer fielding a tame shot from Silva and thwarting Sterling on three occasions.
Pellegrini introduced Bony and Jesus Navas for Delph and Kevin De Bruyne and in the 80th minute Sterling equalised, finishing coolly with his left foot after Gael Clichy had wriggled to the byline and crossed.
In a flash City were in front, Silva improbably flicking on a high ball for Bony, who nutmegged Nico Elvedi and teed up Sterling to sweep an assured finish inside the right-hand post from the edge of the box.
Four minutes later it was all over, Bony finishing at the second attempt after his initial shot was blocked by Havard Nordveit, and Hart’s save from Thorgan Hazard’s deflected shot spared the home fans an anxious final few minutes.