On a night when Manchester City decided to reveal all of their flaws to the world, providing an argument why they are still not ready to win the Champions League, they still found a way to grab an unlikely away win that puts one foot in the quarter-finals.
With five minutes left here City were 2-1 down, down to 10 men, looking lost, panicked, worried, and unsure if they would ever manage to crack Europe. They had conceded two first-half penalties, lost Nicolas Otamendi to two yellow cards, and the faults were starting to show. They looked just as callow as they have done at any stage in their long, slow learning curve in the Champions League.
Then, a Leroy Sane free-kick, out of the blue, into the top corner, and City were level. Then an Ederson long ball, Sterling skipped in behind and rolled in the finish. Suddenly City were 3-2 up, having hit Schalke with a one-two combination far more powerful and painful than the one in the opposite direction at the end of the first half.
This win takes the pressure off the second-leg at the Etihad Stadium next month and means City can focus on the Carabao Cup final in a far lighter mood. Yes, they will have to play better than they did for most of this game, but at this stage of the season it is all about getting over the line.
It all felt so simple and obvious in the first 20 minutes as City set about doing exactly what Pep Guardiola demanded, coming here and playing with all their normal style and charisma. As soon as the game begun City had Schalke pinned back in their own half, and it took eight minutes for the hosts to even get the ball beyond half-way. And even that move ended with Mark Uth hitting a cross into Hamza Mendyl.
When City scored their first, it felt like proof of the gulf between the teams. Schalke goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann played a lazy pass to a dozy Salif Sane, and it was too easy for David Silva to square the ball to Aguero to tap in. Remember that at this stage last season, City won their away first leg 4-0 at Basel. And a similar result looked on the cards here tonight.
But City have had a problem recently with switching off when 1-0 up. Especially in games like this, away from home, after an early goal, against a team they should be beating. As if taking the lead kidded the players into thinking they did not have to keep working hard.
City can complain about the VAR decision that turned this game against them but there was plenty of fault on their side too. They had started to get sloppy soon after Aguero’s goal, slower on the ball, poorer in their passing, less like themselves than they were at the start.
The first crucial moment came when Daniel Caligiuri shot from outside the box and Nicolas Otamendi deflected it behind for a corner. He tried to pull his arm away, but the Schalke players still wanted a penalty. And it took minutes of VAR consultation, no-one in the ground really knowing what was happening, before Carlos Del Cerro Grande gave the penalty. Bentaleb converted easily.
City have a problem with reacting to adversity. They get so upset when they make a mistake that they cannot stop themselves from making a similar one straight after. So it was when, five minutes after the first penalty, Fernadinho dragged down Salif Sane to give away a far more obvious second. No VAR needed this time. Bentaleb scored again.
Literally no-one here expected Schalke to be 2-1 up at any point. Not the Schalke fans, gloomy before the game begun. And certainly not after City had taken their early lead. This gave the second half an unusual mood, a situation that no-one had prepared for. The onus was on City to take control of the game again, just as they did in the first half.
But the reality was not that simple. There was something slightly off about City’s second-half performance. They could not play with their usual superiority and verve. Instead, they looked slightly anxious and nervy, even as they dominated possession. Sterling, Aguero and Gundogan hit needless shots from far out, ripping up City’s careful plans, taking the low percentage glory option instead. When De Bruyne overhit a through ball far beyond Aguero and out of play, City’s lack of balance was obvious.
When City are playing at their best they are impervious to the counter-attack, but it was a fast break that sunk their chances for the evening here. Guido Burgstaller, on as a substitute, tore away down the right and Otamendi, never comfortable with space behind him, had to cut him down. He had already been booked for his handball for the first penalty and so Del Cerro Grande simply sent him off. Guardiola had to put Vincent Kompany on for David Silva to keep City with a back four.
City looked desperate, taking a 2-1 defeat back to Manchester. They needed something new, something different from the patterns that looked flat and predictable here in the second half. And that came from the bench and it came from a set piece. City had a free-kick 30 yards out and with De Bruyne off the pace all evening, Leroy Sane took it instead. He had only just come on but he bent it into the far top corner of the net. And if that felt unusual, surprising and decisive in the flow of the tie, it had nothing on Sterling’s winner five minutes later.
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