Manchester City 3 Red Star Belgrade 1
Who can stop Manchester City retaining the Champions League? This is a question many will ponder and for which Red Star Belgrade had no answer. By the end of this opening group game that is. Because, 45 minutes in, Serbia’s champions of the past six years led and threatened to do what Lyon did five years ago to the day: defeat Pep Guardiola’s side, in Europe, at their home.
Yet City are the masters of refusing to be beaten and so cue two Julián Álvarez strikes minutes into the second half which overturned Red Star’s advantage, broke their visitors, and had Guardiola’s men coasting before Rodri applied the coup de grace.
As the Spaniard did with the finish that claimed the club a first Champions League in May, this was a curled shot that had Guardiola pumping the air: partly in relief because the Catalan’s side had never truly clicked – though as they are so supreme they do not have to.
“Champions of Europe” had been the Etihad Stadium announcer’s rallying cry and City were a picture of poise and control, threading the ball through Red Star with the aplomb of the continent’s regal power.
A series of corners were claimed, the last of which Sergio Gómez swung in from the left, Red Star cleared, roved into City’s half, conceded possession, and had Phil Foden and Erling Haaland stampeding back at them along a left channel.
Guardiola, the arch technical area prowler, waited 12 minutes before entering the zone, from where he implored Kyle Walker and Matheus Nunes to spray the ball along the right for Bernardo Silva to use. It was shifted to the Portuguese – momentarily – before play went back across the field.
There, Rodri, from a central area, hustled forward and blazed at Omri Glazer’s goal: the visiting goalkeeper beat the ball away – as he would do throughout the opening period.
Phil Foden had lined up on the left but he flitted about and, now, he applied a touch that had Julián Álvarez swooping in. This time the shot was held cleanly.
The script of how to prosper against City is simple and well-thumbed yet difficult to apply: hit them on the break. After Álvarez sold Walker far too short near Red Star’s D, Osman Bukari could try the ploy by sprinting towards halfway but a clumsy touch allowed Nathan Aké to mop up.
At 23 and with a prodigious talent Foden should be a fixture under Guardiola, especially as Kevin De Bruyne’s long-term injury has opened up a path for him into the XI. This display confirmed that belief, and his next contributions were a cross that had Haaland hitting Glazer’s bar, then seconds afterwards, a through-pass to Rodri.
In between, Aké’s header sent Glazer diving left to palm away before, in a fast-and-furious passage, Hwang In-beom had Ederson doing the same at the other end in Red Star’s first effort on target before, as the half aged, the normally lethal Haaland failed from eight yards out and under zero pressure, the No 9 blazed over.
Last season, Red Star’s coach, Barak Bakhar, was in charge of Maccabi Haifa and led them into the group stages for the first time in 13 years. Unfortunately they were thrashed 7-2 and 6-1 by Paris Saint-Germain and Benfica respectively; they at least recorded a solitary win (over Juventus) before crashing out. City are capable of administering similar hammerings so the visiting coach and his team could chalk up being in the lead at the interval as a fine achievement.
This was exactly the way to do it: Bukari raced in behind City’s high line and smashed home – initially ruled offside, the VAR correctly ruled the Ghanaian was not and so City trailed as the players wandered off for oranges and tea.
This came after Glazer had previously repelled a close-range Foden header and Silva was replaced by Jeremy Doku – presumably for an injury.
Two minutes after the break and City forced parity. Álvarez rolled to Haaland whose return was weighted for the Argentinian and he tapped beyond Glazer. This, at last, was ruthless from those in blue and though Walker had a strike ruled offside a little later, they had Red Star pinned back, primed to be killed off.
Glazer had been Red Star’s best player but now came the calamity of Álvarez’s second. The forward dipped a free-kick in from the left and up went the keeper who turned a regulation clearing punch into the howler of what appeared an own goal – the ball going in off the back of a glove.
Álvarez nearly had his hat-trick but he hit the side-netting, to send Guardiola slumping in his seat. He was, though, soon to bolt upright in joy. – Guardian