For all his talent, Sergio Aguero has always been something of an enigma since he arrived at Manchester City in a £38million transfer from Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2011. He was, and is, a lethal goalscorer but there has also been something preventing him from being classed among the best on the planet.
Whether it is because his short, powerful and direct style is not the most spectacular or whether it is because he does not seek the off-field publicity of some other footballers, the Argentine has never quite been given that world-class tag.
But Aguero has now scored eight times in his last six matches in all competitions. Is this just due to a new lease of life under Manuel Pellegrini to return the South American to the 23-goal player who fired City to the Premier League title in 2011/12? Perhaps. But another factor must be that he now has a strike partner who appears to perfectly complement his attributes. Aguero is now world class.
He scored twice in Tuesday night's 5-2 win over CSKA, which sent City into the UEFA Champions League knock-out stages for the first time in their history, repeating his brace from in Russia - where alleged racist chanting from the stands against Yaya Toure marred the game. But his team-mate, Alvaro Negredo - a £20m summer signing from Sevilla to replace the Juventus-bound Carlos Tevez - even went one better with a fine hat-trick.
Are the duo of Aguero and Negredo now eclipsing the likes of Manchester United's Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, or Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez as the most lethal strike pair among some of England's top clubs? And can this form continue to paper over the cracks in City's defending?
Aguero and Negredo led the line in a 4-4-2 line-up as all the players from the weekend's 7-0 thrashing of Norwich City in the Premier League kept their place. That meant Joe Hart remained on the City bench as manager Pellegrini maintained his plan of Costel Pantilimon in goal.
CSKA set up in the 4-2-3-1 formation which is so popular in the modern Champions League and had Seydou Doumbia, who scored the visitors' two goals, as a lone striker. Boss Leonid Slutsky was able to include Keisuke Honda despite reports of a knee injury.
Story of the game
"Majestic stuff," praised Sky Sports' Niall Quinn of Aguero after he had rolled Honda and nutmegged Kirill Nababkin shortly before half-time. "A masterclass," echoed Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler later in the match in perfectly succinct style. It all epitomised a wonderful night for City's No.16.
After a disappointing 2012/13 campaign, which was damaged by injuries, Aguero has long looked back to the lethal player of 2011/12. And, against CSKA, the 25-year-old again showed he appears to be relishing Pellegrini's attacking tactics since his fellow South American succeeded Roberto Mancini this summer. Sky Sports expert Ray Wilkins alluded to this point before kick-off when he said: "I think the environment in which the City players are playing seems a lot lighter than when Mancini was there. And they are playing some excellent football."
In the first half alone, Aguero had three shots, scoring from his two efforts which hit the target. His first was a penalty and the second was admittedly slightly helped by a deflection. At half-time, Aguero had touched the ball 39 times and played 29 passes at an 86.2 per cent success rate. He also produced some wonderful touches, turns and runs. He faded slightly in the second half as City took their foot off the gas but he still finished the game with four shots. At the same time, Aguero had assisted Negredo for City's third goal in the first half having demonstrated super work-rate to tackle back before crossing the ball.
It was, though, in the second half when Negredo took over. That is where Aguero and Negredo appear to work as a partnership. Including Negredo's opener, they only played four passes between each other against CSKA, so they do not necessarily link-up in the same manner of Sturridge and Suarez, or Van Persie and Rooney. But, as can be seen below from the 40 shots on target, 33 chances, and 21 goals they have totalled when playing together in both the Champions League and Premier League this season, they both know exactly where the goal is positioned. One of the pair will always be causing damage.
|Sturridge & Suarez||Aguero & Negredo||RvP & Rooney|
|Shots on Target||22||Shots on Target||40||Shots on Target||27|
|Shots off Target||18||Shots off Target||28||Shots off Target||28|
|Goal Assists||3||Goal Assists||9||Goal Assists||6|
|Chances Created||19||Chances Created||33||Chances Created||25|
Negredo scored his second when being assisted by Samir Nasri shortly after half-time before completing his hat-trick in injury-time from substitute James Milner's assist. The powerful Spaniard, nicknamed 'The Beast', can head the ball, hold it up and finished the game with statistics of three goals from six shots of which four were on target. But his passing was a disappointment having attempted just 32 passes, the lowest number of any outfield City player who started the game. His passing success rate was another outfield City low of just 81.3%. Negredo's passing success rate in CSKA's half provided even greater room for improvement at just 68.2%. This is a probable cause in his poor link-up play with Aguero.
Elsewhere, all eyes had again been on Hart's replacement, Pantilimon, before kick-off. It was difficult to point the finger in either of the two goals scored by Doumbia, the second coming from a penalty, given the giant City goalkeeper only touched the ball 17 times. One of those touches was a clumsy attempt at punching away a deflected free-kick in the 23rd minute but the overall blame can instead be attributed to City's defending, which has been under scrutiny ever since the attack-minded Pellegrini's arrival.
|2013/14 Champions League||Manchester City|
|Clearances (inc. Punches)||94|
|Shots on Target Faced||20|
With injured captain and centre-back Vincent Kompany still watching from the stands, and whether it was complacency or not after Aguero's early penalty opener, the usually reliable Pablo Zabaleta was one of several players, including Fernandinho, Yaya Toure and Negredo, to have lost possession four times inside the opening half-an-hour.
This was highlighted by CSKA's opening goal in injury-time before half-time, when Pontus Wernbloom beat a weak challenge from Fernandinho before rolling a pass through the heart of City's defence, where Martin Demichelis was attempting to play offside but Matija Nastasic had dropped back, allowing Doumbia to score. In total, CSKA had been given the chance to have seven shots in the first half. Only two of those efforts were on target but a better team could have punished City in a manner similar to that in which they were humiliated by Bayern Munich at the beginning of October when City playing with two strikers left them short in midfield.
But City's threat going forward meant they had always looked favourites versus CSKA. At full-time, City held a 58.8% dominance of possession, had played exactly 200 more passes than CSKA at a success rate of 89.2%, and also managed 15 attempts at goal to the visitors' 12. Doumbia's second goal from the penalty spot after he had been brought down naively by Gael Clichy again showed up the problems in City's defence. They have now conceded six goals in just four games from 20 shots on target in the Champions League and Doumbia's two goals from two shots on target demonstrates the ruthless nature of the competition. But with Aguero and Negredo in this sort of form, Pellegrini's side can at least be bailed out against weaker opposition.
"It is the first step. This is what the club wanted to do for the last two years, so our first target was to qualify for the round of 16. The most important thing today is that we can now play the last two games of the group thinking about trying to be the first in the group. After that, we will see the draw and see in February."
Jamie Carragher's view
"I was speaking about Aguero before the game and thinking he can do things which make the defender look stupid. But he also does things when the defender has not done anything wrong and it is not a mistake. It is just sheer, world-class football. He is also works his socks off. He is not just a goalscorer. It is a great cross for Negredo's first goal."