Super Jack - Grealish sparkles on Champions League debut with a goal and assist
These were the nights Jack Grealish had been dreaming of, the reason he opted to leave his boyhood club this summer.
On what was his Champions League debut, the man who started just once at Euro 2020 showed he’s more than comfortable rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite.
“I’ve been waiting a while [to play in the Champions League] and for the past few days and weeks I just couldn’t wait for this game in particular,” the charismatic winger said, grinning ear to ear, to BT Sportafter Manchester City’s impressive 6-3 victory over RB Leipzig.
That boyish charm was on show even before the game, as a menacing smirk crept onto Grealish’s face before kick-off when Champions League music rang around the Etihad Stadium.
If ever Grealish needed to justify to his new supporters that he’s more than capable of holding a spot in Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering squad, tonight’s performance demonstrated just how devastating he can be.
The 26-year-old was sensational against RB Leipzig, and in a side of international superstars, took the game to the opposition more than any of his illustrious team-mates.
A sign of things to come
All aspects of Grealish’s game were excellent. His link-up play was effortless and he spent all night threading forward balls into Kevin De Bruyne and Ferran Torres, rarely opting to go backwards or sideways.
It will be the passes into the former that will give City fans justified optimism. This was the first time Grealish and De Bruyne started together and while their connection is still developing, it’s no coincidence that the Premier League champions managed six on Wednesday with their star performers on show.
The Belgian looked close to his best again from the centre of the park, and with Grealish creating chances from the left and Riyad Mahrez on the right, there was simply no way for Leipzig to stifle City.
“He’s just brilliant in this position,” former midfielder Owen Hargreaves said on BT afterwards. “Maybe that’s why he’s such a good fit for this City team because he can help with that left touchline.
“Mahrez on the other side gives De Bruyne, [Bernardo] Silva plenty of space to work. And that quality in the final third, this is just top drawer.”
“As a young player, this is the stage,” Hargreaves continued. “He would have watched [the Champions League] at Aston Villa from home and that’s where he wants to be and he belongs here, that’s undeniable.
“He suits this Manchester City team and the way they play. He gives them something different and we saw that today. It was a joy to watch and I’m sure there’s more of it.”
Finding his feet
At Villa, Grealish tended to flit around the field, popping up wherever the disruptive winger fancied and where spaces and opportunities presented themselves.
Already under Guardiola that has changed. Whether there’s more discipline to his game, few can really say, and Dean Smith almost certainly encouraged that free-spirited ranging we saw so regularly in claret and blue.
But on Wednesday he played almost exclusively from the left flank, cutting inside where possible and looking to tee up team-mates or shoot, but never wandering into the middle of the pitch.
It meant Nordi Mukiele endured a torrid night in Manchester, not helped by a comical own-goal in the first half. But Grealish repeatedly bombed beyond the French defender and rarely was dispossessed or misplaced a pass.
The width he offered also created space for others and meant he was always available for a long pass from De Bruyne, Silva, Joao Cancelo and Co.
But, having contributed an assist after just 16 minutes when his corner was headed home by Nathan Ake, Grealish’s highlight came 11 minutes after the break.
After picking the ball up wide on the left, the England international drove inside and leisurely bypassed Tyler Adams, who had been booked for a meaty challenge on Grealish earlier, and then arched the ball past Peter Gulacsi and into the back of the net.
It was the crowning moment of an unforgettable night, one which provided a first real indication of just what Grealish can do in blue.
With more playing time and opportunities to develop on-field relationships, the £100m man and City can only improve offensively - and that’s after putting six past a side who made it to the Champions League semi-final two years ago, and against a goalkeeper who kept 15 Bundesliga clean sheets last season.
The Premier League and Europe should beware, City’s newest superstar means business.