There was an era when managerial changes in Manchester were confined to the blue half of the city, but on the day Pep Guardiola saw off Ole Gunnar Solskjaer he also claimed the scalp of a rather more decorated coach. Rafael Benitez is the Champions League winner who has now gone six games without a victory. Guardiola was left to celebrate with Rodri, who delivered a stunning strike, and applaud Raheem Sterling, the Liverpool alumnus who was lured to Anfield by the current Everton manager.
Only Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero have scored more goals for Guardiola than Sterling, but they have become rarities in a 2021 when he has often been out of form and favour at club level. But, after just two in 30 games, now 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 Jurgen Klopp to reclaim second place in the Premier League. The calibre of City’s first two goals – Bernardo Silva’s third was less memorable – meant he did so in style.
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.
Sterling had already supplied the sublime before then, making a mockery of the struggle to score that has occupied much of his calendar year at club level with a half-volley that flew past Jordan Pickford. It came from Joao Cancelo’s flighted pass, giving the Portuguese a fifth assist in three matches. They are freakish figures for a left-back, but plenty of playmakers would have been unable to supply a ball of that delicacy.
An unused substitute in the Manchester derby, Sterling might not have played had injury not sidelined Jack Grealish and Covid not waylaid Kevin de Bruyne, but he took his opportunity. Returning to his old beat on the right flank, he 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 awarded a penalty, which was then overturned.
There was some dispute over whether Michael Keane’s challenge was in the box; upon seeing the incident again, 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 maiden Premier League start in the manager’s pet position, as a false nine. He showed an aptitude with it. A low shot that Pickford clawed away gave a glimpse of his promise.
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 Portuguese’s shot but the ball looped up to Ilkay Gundogan. He lifted it over Pickford, but his header flicked the bar. It was a sign of Palmer’s influence that his deflected effort fell for Silva to add the third.
Everton had come to contain, Benitez testing his skills as a defensive strategist in a damage-limitation exercise, but could not hold out as their injury problems worsened. They lost their most dynamic winger – and a flagship success of Benitez’s bargain-basement buying – when Demarai Gray limped off early on.