Manchester City 5 Monaco 3
Where do you even start with a match of this nature? It was a thrilling night, full of mistakes, drama and controversy and, when everything was done, Manchester City could reflect on a remarkable feats of escapology against a Monaco team that for long spells seemed to have all the ingredients to make a serious tilt at winning this competition.
Pep Guardiola's team had been on their knees when Radamel Falcao's second goal of the night had left them 3-2 down just after the hour. Falcao had also failed to convert a penalty four minutes into the second half but what happened was extraordinary, including three goals from Sergio Agüero, John Stones and Leroy Sané in a 12-minute blitz, and another reminder why the crowd here like to sing about the way City "fight to the end".
They certainly did that and, amid the bedlam, there was also a smouldering sense of injustice about the moment, at 1-1, when Agüero should have been awarded a penalty but received a yellow card instead for alleged diving. Yet there was no doubt that City should probably just be glad to have saved themselves so dramatically. Monaco, barring their late collapse, had been hugely impressive and cannot be ruled out in the second leg at Stade Louis II on March 15th.
Leonardo Jardim’s team played with the confidence that might be expected from being three points clear of Paris Saint-Germain at the top of their domestic league. They have already beaten Spurs, home and away, in the group stages and Falcao clearly deserves better than just to be remembered for his various ordeals at Manchester United and Chelsea. His diving header for Monaco’s equaliser was his 23rd goal in 28 appearances this season and, not for the first time, it was difficult to explain how a player with his gifts could manage only five, in total, during two years in England.
Yet it was startling to see how vulnerable City were at the back and their tendency to make life unnecessarily difficult for themselves. It has been the recurring theme of their Champions League story and, by now, it is no longer enough to say the club are still novices at this level and learning all the time. Are they really learning? This was their 47th game in this competition since September 2011 and it is bizarre, to say the least, they remain such a soft touch. No team can defend this way and expect to get away with it.
Willy Caballero's mistake for Monaco's first goal, when he kicked the ball straight to Fabinho, was not even the first time City's accident-prone goalkeeper had messed up. Caballero started the match almost by default because Claudio Bravo is deemed so untrustworthy and his early attempt to find Fernandinho, kicking the ball straight out for a throw-in, was a measure of how uncomfortable City looked during the opening exchanges.
Bernardo Silva's nutmeg on Yaya Touré was another warning and, all over the pitch, les Monégasques seemed to have the better of their opponents. At one point Kylian Mbappé-Lottin turned away from Nicolás Otamendi twice in quick succession. Soon afterwards, Benjamin Mendy beat Kevin De Bruyne on the left and then, a couple of minutes later, did the same again. For all the scrutiny on City's defending and team structure, what a formidable side Jardim has assembled, full of pace and strength.
A lesser team might have lost their way once Sané had eluded a couple of opponents on the left and slipped the ball across the six-yard area for Raheem Sterling to open the scoring after 26 minutes. Instead, Monaco immediately set about turning the game on its head and, however lucky they got with the penalty decision, it should not be forgotten Sterling looked offside when he applied the close-range touch for his goal.
Likewise, Otamendi ought to have been shown a red card, rather than a yellow, for scything down Falcao as the Colombian tried to reach Mendy's left-wing cross four minutes after the break. This time, City's protests had no real foundation, other than the fact it seemed to take an age before the Spanish referee, Antonio Mateu Lahoz, pointed to the penalty spot. Falcao took even longer preparing the shot and it was a tame effort, lacking power or precision, allowing Caballero partially to make amends for his first-half performance.
City’s players had been so incensed about the game’s main controversy, when Lahoz decided Agüero had been trying to con him to win a 34th-minute penalty. Agüero had been running clear, latching on to De Bruyne’s through ball, and the Monaco goalkeeper, Danijel Subasic, came charging out, missing the ball and catching City’s striker with his feet. Yet Agüero was shown a yellow card and five minutes later Fabinho caught out the City defence with a quickly taken free-kick and Mbappé ran through to thump a shot into the roof of the net.
Falcao’s first goal, from Fabinho’s right-wing cross, had stemmed directly from Caballero giving the ball away but his second was a piece of individual brilliance, twisting away from Stones and then delivering an exquisite chip to lift the ball over the goalkeeper from just inside the penalty area.
City had been helped by an awful error from Subasic to let Agüero’s low shot make it 2-2 but the home team deserve great credit for their response to going behind again. Agüero fired in from a corner to level the match and City took the lead from the same route, Touré flicking the ball on and Stones applying the final touch. For the first time in the match, Monaco lost their composure and it culminated in Agüero bursting clear again to slip in Sané for City’s fifth goal.