SOCCER - A.Klagenfurt vs Southampton, test match KLAGENFURT,AUSTRIA,18.JUL.22 - SOCCER - ADMIRAL Bundesliga, Premier League, SK Austria Klagenfurt vs FC Southampton, test match. Image shows a ball. PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxAUTxSUIxSWE GEPAxpictures/xFlorianxMori

If the question for Guardiola is how to win the Champions League without Lionel Messi, then he may have finally found his answer and it looks like it could well be Raheem Sterling.

With every passing week, the England international seems to grow in stature and importance to this Manchester City side.

A hat-trick and two assists destroyed an Atalanta team that took an early lead at the Etihad – and moved City to within touching distance of the knockout stages of Europe’s premier competition for the seventh season in succession.

Guardiola’s team have become experts in negotiating the group stages, which is a measure of their development at this exalted level. Yet the most prized trophy in club football remains beyond them – despite their spend of more than half a billion pounds under Guardiola’s watch.

The man who created maybe the greatest club side of all at Barcelona has never even reached a final since leaving the Camp Nou – since leaving Messi behind.

Guardiola’s City side – for all their domestic dominance – are yet to navigate their way past the quarter-finals under him.

The last remaining question mark hanging over their great manager’s head is whether he can conquer Europe without the finest player on the planet.

Well, in Sterling, he might just have found his latest talisman – and he deserves huge credit for moulding the once frustrating winger into one of the deadliest forwards in world football.

Sterling has developed into a game-changer of the highest quality – increasingly the player City look to in their time of need.

It was against Dinamo Zagreb in their last game in Group C that the 24-year-old emerged from the bench to break the deadlock.

And after Ruslan Malinovskyi fired Atalanta ahead from the penalty spot after 28 minutes here, again it was Sterling who led the response. His cross to Sergio Aguero perfectly dissected the visitors’ centre-halves for the Argentine to equalise after 34 minutes.

Moments later he was dancing through the box – forcing Andrea Masiello to bring him down for Aguero to fire home a penalty. After the break, he truly turned it into a one-man show.

He finished off a wonderful team move to lift the ball into the roof of Pierluigi Gollini’s net after 58 minutes.

The Atalanta goalkeeper – as well as his defence – was then left wrong-footed as Sterling added a second six minutes later. And he completed an 11-minute hat-trick when applying the finishing touch to Riyad Mahrez’ cross.

If anyone was thinking he was superhuman, there was a reality check late on when he somehow managed to fire wide when one-on-one with the keeper.

Okay, so maybe he isn’t Messi – but he may well be City’s answer to the brilliant Argentine.

Sterling’s brilliance marred by Rodri’s injury

A wonderful Champions League night at the Etihad came at a cost.

Guardiola faces an anxious wait to learn the extent of Rodri’s hamstring injury after the midfielder was forced off in the first half.

The injury curse that has struck City’s centre backs now extends to their makeshift options too, it seems.

Guardiola looked furious on the sidelines as Rodri went down and he will have to hope the problem is not as serious as it first seemed.

Then there was Phil Foden.

A rare start for the academy graduate ended early when he handed a second yellow card. It had been a positive night for the midfielder, who looked right at home among his illustrious teammates but ended on a sour note.

City are getting by with their makeshift centre backs, but Guardiola must be counting the days until he can name a full-strength defence. Desperate times call for desperate measures and it will be a patch-up job for City for as long as it takes for Aymeric Laporte to recover from knee ligament damage.

At least John Stones – who had to come on for the injured Rodri before half time – and Nicolas Otamendi are back to full fitness, which is why it came as such a surprise that Guardiola opted to name both on the bench.

As a partnership they may not be perfect – but they are the best City have got right now.