Just before the hour in this match at the Etihad Stadium, Bernardo Silva took the ball on the right flank and began to drive inside, not so much sprinting as ambling urgently, like a man running a little late to deliver a lecture, scarf flapping absently over one shoulder.
Casually, more just to hold on to the ball, he nutmegged Alphonso Davies. Then he did something impossible, seeming somehow to walk through Davies’s legs in pursuit of the ball, reappearing on the other side of his man via some invisible hobbit tunnel.
As an afterthought, he also nutmegged Matthijs de Ligt, then looked up to find Davies back hounding him, forcing him to stop and spin and drag the ball back, making snow angel patterns in the grass before eventually being scragged to the ground.
Ten minutes later Silva was in the same space, choosing this time to draw another character from his complete one-man ensemble cast performance. This time judging the delicate flight of Erling Haaland’s cross and launching himself like some anvil-headed goal-pylon of the 1950s to butt a power-header past Yann Sommer and high into the net to make the score 2-0 in the first leg of this quarter-final, and in the process confirming two things.
First, that City are just too good, too settled, too grooved right now to fall for the off-chance of a little Thomas Tuchel voodoo. And second, that Silva is one of the most extraordinary footballers in the elite modern game. Haaland will take the headlines, the difference‑maker who made one and scored one. But Silva was utterly masterful here, starting the game in the bespoke right-wing super‑presser role that Guardiola has set aside for him in the current version of City.
Silva was there because Bayern’s right flank is a genuine cutting edge, and nobody else keeps the ball or reads the space better out there. And from the start the duel between Silva and Davies was utterly gripping, a collision between Silva’s shuffling super‑brain presence and the grace and elite athleticism of Davies.
Silva really is a remarkable player in this role. Here is a footballer with the full 360-degree picture in his head, who sees the future, glimpses the patterns, the pass after the pass, and who uses that super-strength when his opponents have the ball to cut angles, to smother, to seal the channels of attacking space. In the way other players pass or shoot or dribble, Silva has become an absolute master of pressing.
The Etihad Stadium tends to go dark on nights such as these, a sullen, coiled, insidiously hostile place. At kick-off the Manchester skies continued to dump vast, annihilating sheets of rain; rain that seems to fall in clumps, at one point to be falling upwards as well as down.
Bayern began quite well, using their speed to attack City’s left flank. But steadily City asserted their own rhythms, and Silva began to dominate that space on the right. Silva’s strength has always been his total comfort on the ball. He just doesn’t care, doesn’t feel it, sees every space and movement at triple speed, so confident in his ability to shift his feet and sneak through the tiniest of gaps.
There was almost something comical about watching Bayern, such a powerful athletic team being pressed and harried and forced back by this ambling, skinny legged R2-D2 of a footballer.
The first goal came from that side. First Silva skipped outside with the ball, skipped further, drawing two defenders with him. The ball inside was simple enough, rolled with a sense of well‑yeah‑obviously, and perfectly weighted to aid Rodri in moving away from Jamal Musiala. Suddenly Rodri had space on his left foot and a line to the top corner. Seeing it is one thing. The execution was perfect, the ball launched in a lovely arc outside the line of post and into the top corner of the net as Jann Sommer clutched at the empty air.
It was fitting that Silva should score the second, another page from his one‑man complete guide to elite-level football. Haaland got the third, set up by a fine touch from John Stones, who was rejigged here into a fluid midfield‑centre-back role, a change from his previous turn in the fluid midfield-full-back role.
Bayern were messy and brittle at times. There seemed to be a determination to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that Sommer isn’t very good at close-quarter high-speed rondo ball control. By contrast City are just such a well-seasoned entity now, able to smother and control the game in the places where opponents are strong, and to do so using a player who came here as a mercurial No 10 and who is now one of the great pressers in world football.
What is tackles? It seems tackles is an eight-stone waif dominating a 40-yard area of the pitch by being impossible to dispossess and making 400 perfect high-speed decisions across the course of 90 minutes. There may yet be a reckoning for this City team. But not here and not against this underpowered version of Bayern.