Could this be the year, at long last, for Manchester City and Pep Guardiola? The evidence is mounting, the latest exhibit from a team hitting form at just the right time unfolding in front of shocked German eyes. And those of the rest of Europe.
It is City’s 12th consecutive season in the Champions League and, under Guardiola in particular, they seem to have found new and increasingly painful ways to fall short of the ultimate prize.
But as they subjected Bayern Munich to a hugely uncomfortable experience towards the end of this quarter-final, first leg, it was easy for the club’s fans to dream. This was Bayern, the six-times winners, the perennial Bundesliga champions, reduced to a wreck.
The scenes after the third goal – scored, inevitably, by Erling Haaland; his 45th of a ludicrous debut season in sky blue – summed it up. Thomas Tuchel, the new Bayern manager, stared into his screen, trying to make sense of it all while his players sloped back for the restart; dejected, looking like they knew it was over. Bayern will fight until the last breath of next Wednesday’s return. City appear unassailable.
John Stones had headed square for Haaland, stretching every sinew to make the assist after City had recycled a corner. It was the gloss on an excellent Stones performance from central defence stepping into midfield – and, at that point, the Etihad was still rocking after City’s second goal.
It was a personal disaster for the unconvincing Dayot Upamecano, who tried to venture out of defence only to be caught in two minds and robbed by Jack Grealish. Where were his escape routes? City had shut them down. Grealish got Haaland away with a backheel and that was when the striker showed he can create a bit as well, his lovely floated cross picking out Bernardo Silva’s run from a deep position.
Silva flashed his header through Yann Sommer’s outstretched arms – not one that the goalkeeper will enjoy watching back. And yet it was a night when, but for his saves, it could have been a rout, something to rival City’s 7-0 destruction of RB Leipzig here in the previous round.
The broader picture for Guardiola and his players after a ninth consecutive win in all competitions is that the treble could be on. City have control of their destiny in the title race after Arsenal’s draw at Liverpool on Sunday and they have an FA Cup semi-final against Sheffield United to come.
But it is the Champions League that they most want and this was a display to justify the pre-match assessment of Tuchel, who had described City as Europe’s “gold standard”.
It was easy to think that Tuchel’s narrative arc could be irresistible. He had derailed City in the 2021 final of this competition, having gone to Chelsea in mid-season, which is what he has just done at Bayern. To Guardiola, Tuchel had to feel like a ghost. Yet Guardiola’s insistence that he was not haunted was not mere fighting talk.
City moved through the gears in the first half, Ilkay Gündogan heading high early on and Silva shimmering with menace, all sharp turns and easy balance. The identity of the breakthrough goalscorer was a surprise. Then again, there can be few people who doubt the purity of Rodri’s technique.
It was a little soft from a Bayern point of view, Jamal Musiala missing his challenge to allow Rodri to step inside after Silva’s square pass and Joshua Kimmich failing to engage. But take nothing away from Rodri.
The holding midfielder sized up the situation in an instant and he knew what was needed – a left-footed curler into the far top corner. And how he executed it, starting the ball a couple of yards outside the post and bringing it back with unerring accuracy.
City might have been in front already, Haaland dragging a shot at Sommer after Rodri had sparked a move that featured Gündogan and Grealish – and they should have gone 2-0 up on 33 minutes. Sommer came for a deflected Kevin De Bruyne cross in front of Grealish to paw clear but only as far as Gündogan, who unloaded. Sommer’s reflex save with his legs was a jaw-dropper.
Bayern’s only first-half chance came just before the Rodri goal. Leroy Sané outstripped Manuel Akanji up the left to cut back for Musiala but Rúben Dias threw himself into a vital block. To him and his defensive colleagues, the clean sheet was a tonic, particularly after Guardiola had questioned the team’s solidity in previous European campaigns.
Sané kept on coming after the interval, Ederson making three saves to keep him out, the second being the eye-catcher after the former City winger had broken through. But it was the hosts who created more and more, Bayern becoming increasingly stretched.
On one level, Sommer felt like an accident waiting to happen. He sent one clearance under pressure straight at Haaland after Upamecano had dithered; Bayern were grateful for a Kimmich block. And there were plenty of other moments when Sommer diced with disaster with the ball at his feet.
Yet Sommer did make fine saves. The best was the one from Gündogan but there would be a string of others in the second half to keep out Nathan Aké, Dias, the substitute Julián Álvarez (twice) and Rodri.