It was a night when it was possible to sense a rare anxiety in Manchester City, when they failed to assert their usual control against a Borussia Dortmund team that had arrived at a low ebb. And yet it was one, ultimately, that ended with them finding a way to win, to take a lead into the second leg of this Champions League quarter-final, into Pep Guardiola’s mission to tread uncharted territory at the club. When the manager can call upon players of the quality of Kevin De Bruyne, he will always have a puncher’s chance.
De Bruyne had given City the early lead and, although plenty happened after that, with Dortmund impressing with their approach and England’s Premier League champions elect living on their nerves at times, it was De Bruyne who helped to make the difference at the last. The City captain spotted Ilkay Gündogan’s run towards the far post and, when he picked him out with trademark whip and precision, Guardiola could sense the upper hand. Gündogan’s composure was pronounced, his touch inside finding Phil Foden and the finish from the young midfielder was true. Foden had spurned chances earlier on, but not this one. The City celebrations were visibly tinged with relief.
Moments earlier, Dortmund had got the away goal that their football deserved. They had been denied it in controversial fashion on 37 minutes when a refereeing error stood in the way of Jude Bellingham, the 17-year-old England international, who starred with his cut and thrust. Now Bellingham found Erling Haaland, when he played in Marco Reus, City were carved open. Reus thrashed his shot past Ederson and the thought occurred that City were heading for another unwanted result in the competition that Guardiola is most determined to win with them.
In four previous attempts, Guardiola has never got beyond the last eight with City, and the names of his conquerors are etched into his history. Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham, Lyon. On this evidence, it will be nervy in the return but at least City have the edge.
Their status as red-hot favourites to advance had been reinforced over the weekend as they won at a canter at Leicester to remain clear at the top of the Premier League while Dortmund suffered a damaging home loss to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga. It has left them seven points behind fourth-placed Frankfurt and, with seven games to play, in danger of missing out on Champions League qualification via that route.
Their domestic season is teetering towards what their centre-half, Mats Hummels, called a “sporting and financial catastrophe.” And yet they were well-balanced in their 4-3-3 system for much of the evening, finding spaces in between the lines. Bellingham had advertised his intent in the seventh minute when he bought a half yard from Kyle Walker and unloaded a shot, which Ederson got down to beat away.
De Bruyne’s goal stemmed from an Emre Can mistake, although it was also down to City pressing high. Can’s pass was intercepted by Riyad Mahrez and when he found De Bruyne, Dortmund were on the back foot and in trouble. De Bruyne ushered in Foden up the left and his low cross was returned at the far post by Mahrez. De Bruyne’s finish was razor sharp.
With Bellingham driving and Reus getting in dangerous areas, City could not relax. Dortmund had their moments before the interval, and none was bigger than Bellingham’s disallowed goal. He had chased a backpass towards Ederson and his eyes lit up when the City goalkeeper’s loose control sent the ball spinning up in front of him.
Bellingham stretched in to win it and, with Ederson left on the ground, he strolled towards the empty net to score. And yet before he rolled home, the referee, Ovidiu Hategan, inexplicably blew for a foul. It was a horrible call for two reasons – firstly, there was no trace of a foul and, secondly, the whistle meant that VAR could not overrule.
Hategan had already erred on 29 minutes when he awarded City a penalty after Rodri went down clutching his face. The ball had reached him via a De Bruyne free-kick and, when Can flicked a boot towards him, Rodri saw his opportunity.
On this occasion, though, VAR could intervene. The replays showed that if Can made any contact, it was with Rodri’s leg, and that it was minimal. It was pure gamesmanship from Rodri.
Dortmund continued to push after the interval, with Haaland exploding onto a Mahmoud Dahoud pass, brushing aside Rúben Dias and seeing Ederson produce a one-on-one block. It was a flash to advertise Haaland’s towering ability.
City struggled to plot a course through Dortmund’s ranks with Bernardo Silva as a false nine, although they had more success when Guardiola swapped the attacking midfielder for Gabriel Jesus. Still the nerves of the home team jangled. Reus wasted a free-kick on the edge of the area and he was also close to intercepting a Dias backpass.
De Bruyne got to the byline to tee up Foden on 65 minutes, only for Marwin Hitz to make a fine block, and there were other flickers from both City players. Then came the late drama.