On the day Manchester City celebrated their past, they encountered unexpected and unusual difficulties in their present. The Etihad Stadium has a new look, with a statue of Colin Bell, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee unveiled outside it, but there was a strange sight on the pitch, too. Pep Guardiola’s European champions were two goals down to RB Leipzig, fortress Etihad set to be breached in Europe for the first time in more than five years.
Instead, Erling Haaland and Phil Foden conjured a comeback, two who may end their City careers immortalised in bronze alongside the greats of the 1960s ensuring the unbeaten run at home in continental competition will extend into 2024. Julian Alvarez came off the bench to take City’s return in 2023 to 24 wins in 25 home games and, for a seventh successive season, they will top their Champions League group. It could lead to a more favourable tie in the last 16. If Bell, Lee and Summerbee, for all their other achievements, never won a game in the old European Cup with City, Guardiola’s team could retain their trophy.
But if they stand accused of rendering the competition’s pool stages predictable, they flirted with a shock. Some 381 days since their last home defeat, to Brentford, and 1958 after Lyon won here 2-1 in the Champions League, City were two goals adrift after a Lois Openda brace.
If City are rarely disjointed and disappointing, they were before the break. If Guardiola’s attempts at rest and rotation backfired, a fundamental problem was that some of his stalwarts were particularly poor. Their centre-backs erred badly for each goal, Manuel Akanji for the first, Ruben Dias for the second. The Portuguese was uncharacteristically wretched, spurning a wonderful chance to equalise, fortunate not to get a second booking on the stroke of half-time and removed at the interval.
Guardiola had to summon some of the regulars: Nathan Ake at half-time, Jeremy Doku and Alvarez soon after. The Argentinian made an immediate impact, playing a part in Haaland’s goal a minute after his introduction, and delivered the winner. Yet the fightback stemmed from Foden. He made two, scored another, each with a speed of thought and foot that made him unstoppable. He was too slick, too quick for Leipzig.
Haaland became the fastest player to 40 Champions League goals, four months after his 23rd birthday, when he latched on to Foden’s pass to poke a shot past Janis Blaswich. Then Foden took Josko Gvardiol’s pass on the turn, nutmegging Lukas Klostermann with his shot.
Finally Foden, fed by Doku, cut the ball back to Alvarez – a deflection denied him a second assist – and the World Cup winner placed a shot in. Subdued and slipshod in the first half, City were relentless in the second, rediscovering their verve, pinning their visitors back and spending injury time searching for a fourth goal, rather than defending their lead.
It left Leipzig with a different kind of dejection here. They have found visits to Manchester traumatic in the past, conceding five to United, six and seven to City. They have now been breached 16 times in three visits to the Etihad; and yet a team, embarrassed by February’s 7-0 shellacking should depart with some pride restored.
Few cause City so many difficulties on their own turf, even if some of their problems were self inflicted. Akanji delivered the wrong kind of tribute to three City legends with some statuesque defending. It was inexplicable and strange as he allowed Blaswich’s long kick to reach Openda, who slotted a shot past Stefan Ortega. It made the German the first goalkeeper to register an assist in the Champions League this year.
The next came from a more conventional creator, in the outstanding Xavi Simons. Yet he was aided by the usually dependable Dias, who failed to intercept the Dutchman’s pass, allowing Openda to spin and sprint away from him. The striker steered his shot past Ortega; with Ederson rested, his deputy was beaten twice.
But Openda was proof of a selling club’s succession planning. He was electric and clinical, his brace taking his tally for Leipzig to 13 goals. Signed to replace Christopher Nkunku – scorer of a hat-trick for Leipzig here – the Belgian may have emulated his predecessor had Marco Rose not taken pity on City and substituted him on the hour.
That felt a turning point, even if the substitute Fabio Carvalho claimed a winner following a remarkable piece of control with his back. The loanee from Liverpool was offside and Leipzig’s fortunes in the second half were summed up by the sad sight of Simons going off, seemingly with a shoulder injury.
City, meanwhile, went from abject to excellent in a night, finding a different way to win. It is 27 victories in their last 29 European home matches now. And, as Leipzig can testify, they will take some stopping.
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