The greatest hurdle of the Pep Guardiola era has finally been cleared. Manchester City progress past the Champions League quarter-finals, successful at the fifth attempt under the manager who was headhunted specifically to take further still, but their place in the semi-finals was confirmed by their most prized homegrown talent.
A sublime Phil Foden strike with a quarter of an hour to play – the young prodigy’s second crucial goal in this tie – eventually put enough distance between his boyhood club and Borussia Dortmund, to set up a meeting with Paris Saint-Germain in the last four of European football’s elite club competition.
Riyad Mahrez’s critical penalty had already restored City’s slender advantage and eased fears of a fourth straight quarter-final exit but those disappointments have taught Guardiola’s side to make sure. Foden drilled from the edge of the box against the inside of the post to secure their place.
If this thrilling two-legged contest was decided by a young talent from Stockport, it was almost turned on its head by another from Stourbridge. After being wrongly denied a first-leg goal that could have changed the complexion of this tie, Jude Bellingham gave Dortmund hope by quickly cancelling out City’s first-leg lead.
If Bellingham’s performance at the Etihad last week was not enough for those in his home country to sit up and take notice, Foden, too, has announced himself at this rarefied level, having scored the first leg’s late winner. The only golden boy to lose some of his sheen was Erling Haaland, who failed to make an impact over the two legs.
Guardiola left his galaxy brain in its vat for this one. Oleksandr Zinchenko replaced Joao Cancelo, the full-back’s form having dipped of late, but other than that this was the same line-up that started and won the first leg, even though City did not exactly have everything their own way.
Dortmund were unlucky not to take a stronger foothold into this return after some questionable officiating at the Etihad but at least had history on their side. Teams that have suffered a 2-1 defeat away from home in a Champions League first leg have progressed more often than they have been eliminated.
Eager to gain a further edge, some local supporters let off ‘industrial strength’ fireworks outside City’s hotel throughout Tuesday night and the early hours of yesterday morning. Guardiola slept “like a baby” and his players spent the opening quarter of an hour as if still needing forty winks.
City’s start was deliberately calm and composed, but perhaps a little too calm and composed, and then it was punished. Bellingham scored the goal he should have been awarded in the first leg, only this one was better. It began, like so many goals that Guardiola’s City have conceded in this competition, with a long ball out from the back.
Haaland escaped John Stones’ attention long enough to win the second ball and drag it back to the edge of the box, from where Mahmoud Dahoud’s shot was blocked. Bellingham trapped the rebound with one touch, moved it onto his natural right foot with the second, then unloaded an irrepressible drive into the top right-hand corner.
It was a statement goal, one that made him the second-youngest scorer in Champions League knockout history. It may edge the 17-year-old into England’s squad for the upcoming European Championship, but it also had the adverse effect of waking City from their slumber.
Bellingham is an outrageous talent but has a long way to go before he can match Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian reminded Bellingham and his team-mates of that fact by stealing the ball off Mateu Morey’s toes inside the penalty area then whipping a fierce shot against the underside of Dortmund’s crossbar.
It was the closest City would come to equalising during the first half, closer even than when Foden’s majestic footwork at the byline sent a lofted pass to the opposite side of the box and onto the boot of Riyad Mahrez, yet the finish was found wanting. Dortmund goalkeeper Marwin Hitz was equal to the effort, as he was to a close-range Zinchenko header before the break.
City re-emerged for what were the biggest 45 minutes of their season to date, hoping they would not mark the biggest full stop.
Within seven minutes of the restart, Foden forced the spot-kick, with his cross hitting Emre Can on the arm. Can argued, with good reason, that he had headed the ball onto his arm first. A lengthy VAR check followed but the initial decision was upheld. The unnatural position of Can’s arm was all that mattered.
City’s penalty record over the past few seasons has been nothing short of atrocious. Mahrez has his fair share of misses, most notably at Anfield in late 2018, and this was the first he has taken this season. It was faultless. A powerful, thumping effort into the right-hand corner had too much power for Hitz to handle.
Dortmund’s response was meagre, aside from a Mats Hummels header that dropped narrowly over the crossbar. While Haaland toiled at one end, City pressed on at the other, in search of the goal to settle the tie. De Bruyne almost scored what would have been one of the most memorable Champions League goals, dancing past defenders but only winning a corner.
Yet from that corner came possibly the most memorable goal of City’s history in this competition so far. The set-piece was played short, with Bernardo Silva then rolling the ball out to the edge of the box. Foden shifted it onto his natural left and struck, kissing the inside of the post and in.
Hitz was helpless. The curse was lifted. Guardiola’s City are in the semis.
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