Manuel Pellegrini was happy as Manchester City secured top place in the ‘Group of Death’, but the manager admitted his side must face tougher Champions League opponents.
Having thrown away an early lead given to them by David Silva to trail 2-1 at half-time, City improved greatly after the break and turned the game at the Etihad Stadium around late on thanks to a quickfire double from Raheem Sterling, before Wilfried Bony wrapped up the victory.
The Blues had already qualified for the next round prior to this, their final Group D fixture.
But the result, coupled with Sevilla’s 1-0 home victory over Juventus, meant that for the first time Pellegrini’s men finished top of their pool, ensuring – theoretically at least – an easier last-16 tie than they would otherwise have got.
And asked afterwards if he thought it was one of the best European nights in City’s history, the Chilean said: “It is one of the best.
“If we play the way we did in the second half we can play against any team.”
On an evening when City’s derby rivals Manchester United crashed out of the Champions League, Pellegrini was keen to stress that the main job had already been done in clinching qualification.
While pleased to have sealed first place, he emphasised that anyone wanting to do well in the competition would be coming up against the continent’s biggest sides eventually.
Pellegrini also insisted his greatest relief was that victory had been secured with an excellent second-half performance that marked a considerable improvement from the first-half showing and Saturday’s 2-0 loss at Stoke.
“It is better to finish first because you can avoid important teams for one stage more,” said the 62-year-old, whose side in the past two seasons have been beaten in the last 16 twice by Barcelona – something that now cannot happen this time around.
“Of course it is better at this stage not to play Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid.
“But after that, if you want to win the title, you have to play against the biggest teams.
“And it doesn’t mean you are definitely in the quarter-finals. It is important to play the way we did in the second half in Europe.
“I told the players beforehand the main target was already done – we were already qualified.
“But tonight we had very important targets – firstly, to win the game, and after that, to change things after the way we lost against Stoke, because that was not our team.
“We had to see what happened with Sevilla and Juventus, but our duty was to win this game here and recover the style of play we normally do.
“I felt relief in the sense that we saw in the second half again the team (playing the way) we normally try to play.”
Regarding United’s failure, Pellegrini said: “The most important thing was to qualify for the next stage – it is not so easy. You must ask another English team – it is not so easy to do it.
“It seems easy, but it is not. This was the Group of Death, the four best leagues in Europe.
“I think the more teams we have in the next round is better for the Premier League and English football. So it is a pity for them (United) and not good for England.”
Sterling put in a superb all-round display on what was his 21st birthday, and his manager added: “It is his birthday and before the game, the minimum I thought he had to do was to score two goals! I think it will be very important for him.”