Manchester City ease past Copenhagen but the real test begins in the Champions League quarter-finals

Manchester City 3-1 FC Copenhagen (6-2 agg): Manuel Akanji, Julian Alvarez and Erling Haaland ensured it was an easy night for Pep Guardiola’s men

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Thursday 07 March 2024 21:19 GMT
Manchester City training ahead of Copenhagen second leg

For Manchester City, the Champions League tends to start in earnest in the quarter-finals these days. The defending champions cruised through to the last eight for a seventh successive season. Now, finally, it gets tougher. City’s propensity to win weak groups and draw one of the lesser lights in the last 16 can delay the meaningful contests. FC Copenhagen were brushed aside, as they were always going to be, while Pep Guardiola granted nearly all of his strongest side some kind of rest before their visit to Liverpool. For City, the Premier League, like the Champions League, is about to become more difficult, too. The phoney wars are ending.

This had the feel of a formality. Copenhagen had helped eliminate one Manchester club from Europe. There was no danger of a second, and not merely because City brought a 3-1 lead back from Denmark. A rematch was over inside 10 minutes, a swift double serving as an indictment of Manchester United, who had found it rather harder against the Danish champions. In contrast, City now have 10 consecutive Champions League victories and a 30-game unbeaten run at home in Europe, with the added distinction that only two were even draws.

And, where impressive and high numbers of statistics are invoked, Erling Haaland tends to be involved. A goal against the club who took him on trial as a teenager – and have already had plenty of time to regret not signing him – took the 23-year-old to 41 in the Champions League. It matched the career total of City’s record scorer, Sergio Aguero, as well as drawing him level with Kylian Mbappe and Harry Kane as the top scorer in this season’s competition.

Manuel Akanji’s volley opened the scoring for City as they cruised to an easy win (AFP via Getty Images)

A 29th goal of the campaign in all competitions was also his seventh in three games. Haaland took down Rodri’s long pass beautifully, showed deft footwork and drilled in a shot at the near post. Compounding his ignominious evening, goalkeeper Kamil Grabara dived the wrong way.

The surprise, perhaps, was that Haaland stayed on for 88 minutes, even if he spent much of the second half simply standing in attack. Rodri was only risked for 45 minutes while Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, John Stones, Nathan Ake and Kyle Walker were left out ahead of the trip to Anfield. Stones got a runout when Ruben Dias came off. It meant maybe only Ederson of Guardiola’s strongest side completed the game.

The loss of Matheus Nunes, dislocating a finger in freakish fashion, was the only downside to City’s night while Josko Gvardiol made his comeback from injury. Nunes had made a rare outing on the right with the ever-versatile Julian Alvarez crowbarred into the team on the left. Oscar Bobb started as a No 10 and then adopted a deeper role when Rodri went off. Guardiola has long been accused of overthinking things in Champions League knockout ties, though the motivation this time revolved around rest and rotation.

Julian Alvarez was fortunate with his goal but performed admirably in the playmaker role (Nick Potts/PA Wire)

The shifting cast list meant that City, who have mustered 7-0 wins at this stage twice under Guardiola, were less likely to achieve a hat-trick. They nevertheless started at such a speed to suggest it was possible.

Copenhagen could not cope with Alvarez’s corners: they are unlikely to be an issue for Liverpool, when De Bruyne will reclaim set-piece duties. The A team combined to give City the lead, Manuel Akanji meeting Alvarez’s corner with a lovely volley.

Another set-piece led to Alvarez scoring the second, Rodri heading his corner against the bar, Copenhagen failing to clear and, when the Argentinian shot from an acute angle, Grabara failed to grab his effort, allowing it to squirm in. The goalkeeper’s mask may have camouflaged his embarrassment but it was not to prove his only error.

Mohamed Elyounoussi netted a consolation goal but Copenhagen didn’t really threaten City on the night (AFP via Getty Images)

In the Champions League’s knockout stages for just the second time, with no guarantee they will ever return, the visiting fans could at least enjoy a stylish consolation. The first Norwegian to score was Mohamed Elyounoussi, not Haaland. The former Southampton winger ran from his own half, exchanged passes with Orri Oskarsson, with the Iceland international backheeling the ball to the Norwegian, who slid a shot past Ederson.

Copenhagen produced a spirited second half. Before Rico Lewis struck the bar with a late, deflected effort, Ederson parried a Magnus Mattsson shot and there were hints they might score another as they were arguably the superior, and certainly the more determined, after the break. Much of the noise came from their bouncing fans. City saved their voices, and their players, for the marquee matches that might define their season.

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