There was an era when managerial changes in Manchester were confined to the blue half, but on the day Pep Guardiola saw off Ole Gunnar Solskjær, he also claimed the scalp of a rather more decorated coach. Rafael Benítez is the Champions League winner who has now gone six games without a victory. Instead, the only Spaniard who could celebrate was Rodri, who delivered a stunning strike, and the Liverpool alumnus with much to savour was Raheem Sterling, who was lured to Anfield by the current Everton manager.
Only Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero have ever scored more for Guardiola than Sterling but City goals had become rarities for the England forward in a 2021 when he has often been out of form and favour. After two in 30 games, though, he has two in as many outings. Guardiola has some way to go to catch Sir Alex Ferguson, who remained in situ while 14 managers on the other side of the Mancunian divide departed, but at least he leapfrogged Jürgen Klopp to reclaim second place in the Premier League table. The calibre of City’s first two goals – Bernardo Silva’s third was less memorable – meant he did so in style. Messi, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar beckon on Wednesday but even they should admire City’s strikes.
“The quality of the players we have made the difference,” said Guardiola. “The last times we play against Rafa Benítez at Newcastle, always we struggle a lot.” He encountered a familiar gameplan. “We were well organised and we defended with intensity,” said Benítez. City responded with class. “The first goal changes everything and the second, even worse,” lamented the Everton manager.
Rodri was the passer turned finisher. In the first half, he completed more passes than all of Everton’s midfielders and forwards did between them. In the second, he showed another side to his game, unleashing an unstoppable shot from 25 yards after meeting Allan’s misdirected ball. There was no false modesty from the scorer. “The goal was a beauty,” he said.
Sterling had supplied the sublime finish before then with a half-volley that flew past his England teammate Jordan Pickford. It came from João Cancelo’s flighted pass, giving him a fifth assist in three matches. They are freakish figures for a left-back, but plenty of playmakers would be unable to supply a ball of that deftness and delicacy. “He is in incredible top form,” said Guardiola.
The same might not have been said of Sterling. An unused substitute in the Manchester derby, he might not have played until injury sidelined Jack Grealish and Covid waylaid Kevin De Bruyne, but he enjoyed his opportunity. “He has to perform like he performed today,” said Guardiola. “He did a great job.”
Returning to his old beat on the right flank, Sterling and Phil Foden each crossed for the other, though neither could direct his header on target. But for a point-blank save from Pickford, Sterling would have scored a late second. He had also been initially awarded a penalty. There was some dispute if Michael Keane’s challenge was in the box; upon seeing the incident again, the referee, Stuart Attwell, decided it was not even a foul. Everton, who were denied a penalty after a VAR intervention against Tottenham a fortnight earlier, could sense that technology was a great leveller.
City needed neither a spot-kick nor their sidelined superstars. As Guardiola reshaped his forward line, Cole Palmer was granted a first Premier League start in the manager’s beloved position, as a false nine. He showed an aptitude for it. “A good performance,” said Guardiola. It featured a low shot Pickford clawed away.
Still more auspicious was the moment when he dropped off and provided a defence-splitting pass for Silva to scurry into the gap he had created. Pickford came off his line to block the shot but the ball looped up to Ilkay Gündogan. He lifted his header over Pickford, but it flicked the bar. It was a further sign of Palmer’s influence that his deflected effort fell for Silva to add the third.
“He is an incredible investment for the future,” Guardiola said. Palmer was replaced by a second 19-year-old, with James McAtee’s top-flight debut coming in a cameo. “We have exceptional players in the academy,” Guardiola said. “We have a good generation of four, five or six players and I am not shy to use them.”
If options abound for him, they are narrowing for a beleaguered Benítez as Everton’s injury problems worsened and Richarlison picked up a caution that rules him out of Sunday’s trip to Brentford. They lost their most dynamic winger and a flagship success of Benítez’s bargain-basement buying when Demarai Gray limped off. “We will have to deal with that,” grimaced his manager.