Sane and Stones on different paths as Russia 2018 approaches
As Basel inflicted a rare home defeat upon Manchester City, the World Cup-bound Leroy Sane and John Stones showed contrasting form.
Ten minutes into the second half of the 2-1 Champions League defeat to Basel – after which he accused his team of forgetting to attack – Pep Guardiola was pumping his arms in an exasperated manner, trying to rouse a much-changed Manchester City.
Ever the perfectionist, even Guardiola must have known his exacting standards were unlikely to be met as they were against Arsenal and Chelsea last week, a dominant 4-0 lead from the away leg of the last-16 tie already in the bag.
City led through Gabriel Jesus, netting in regulation fashion on his first start since damaging medial knee ligaments on New Year's Eve and the bright, inventive Mohamed Elyounoussi levelled for Raphael Wicky's commendably industrious visitors, all inside the opening 20 minutes.
Nevertheless, it was an evening for minds to wander towards grander engagements. Friday's quarter-final draw for starters and a run of fixtures that should soon see City add the Premier League title to the EFL Cup.
Greater challenges still await and, in a week when the countdown to Russia 2018 ticked below 100 days, it was tempting to wonder which of the gifted assortment in sky blue are most likely to illuminate the biggest stage.
Jesus getting back on the goal trail and completing 90 minutes as Neymar convalesces will come as a great relief to Brazil boss Tite, but his eighth-minute opener, as with most other times City quickened the pulse, was down to Leroy Sane.
1-1 (5-1) #cityvfcb #mancity pic.twitter.com/ZU6xktpepK
— Manchester City (@ManCity) March 7, 2018
The Germany winger is enjoying electrifying form and embarked on one of those now familiar arrowing runs across the field – Sane seemingly more in control of the ball than those trying to tackle him are of their own bodies – sowing chaos and confusion.
Bernardo Silva, so cruelly ruled out of Portugal's Euro 2016 triumph through injury and primed to make amends this time around, collected Sane's pass and Jesus could not miss from his pinpoint low cross.
Players scaling new heights has been commonplace under Guardiola this season and Sane is probably not even in the conversation when it comes to City's player of the season.
But the 22-year-old arguably has the highest ceiling of anyone in the squad due to his beguiling mix of pace, skill, grace and inventiveness. Sane is one of those rare players who causes the mood, feel and noise inside a stadium to alter when the ball reaches his boot.
Not all of City's Russia-bound stars are in such good order and John Stones must long for the days in their early-season victory march when everything seemed so simple.
Since coming back from a hamstring injury sustained at Leicester City in November, Stones – a Rolls Royce of a defender on his day – has spluttered like an old Austin Metro.
The England international was the only senior City centre-back unused in the back-to-back wins over Arsenal and comprehensive becalming of Chelsea. Against Basel he was ragged, sending simple passes astray and seldom sure of his positioning.
Stones backed off Blas Riveros all the way into the penalty area in the 17th minute, meaning the wing-back's shot cannoned off his shins and invitingly into Elyounoussi's path to finish.
With Gary Cahill out of the Chelsea first team, England boss Gareth Southgate needed Stones to offer a demonstration he can be trusted in City's key games before the end of the season. As things stand, he might head into the Three Lions' opener against Tunisia undercooked.
On the other hand, form can prove a shoddy guide at World Cups, as underdogs have their day and any omen is willingly grasped.
Three months ahead of their clash with Brazil in Rostov, Switzerland head coach Vladimir Petkovic will have watched Michael Lang crashing in a 71st-minute winner for Basel to ensure a goalscoring Jesus left empty handed, hoping lightning might strike twice.