Manchester City 2 Borussia Dortmund 1
All’s well that ends well for Manchester City. This was a strangely disjointed performance from England’s champions-elect, in which they led through Kevin De Bruyne’s early goal but never truly asserted their class, never totally suppressed the threat of an out-of-form Borussia Dortmund.
City had enjoyed a stunning let off on 37 minutes when the 17-year-old Dortmund midfielder, Jude Bellingham – who has broken through into Gareth Southgate's England team – robbed a dithering Ederson on the edge of the City area before strolling through to score what looked like being a crucial away goal.
Incredibly, he was denied by a referee's whistle for an alleged foul on Ederson, which meant that VAR could not intervene. Dortmund deserved their eventual goal – a smart finish by Marco Reus after a Bellingham surge and Erling Haaland's assist – but, at the very last, City got themselves back in front.
It was De Bruyne whose pass picked out Ilkay Gündogan at the far post, and when he laid the ball inside, Phil Foden produced a fine touch and finish. As City bid to reach the Champions League semi-finals for the first time under Pep Guardiola, they refuse to do things the easy way.
City’s status as red-hot favourites to advance had been reinforced over the weekend as they won at a canter at Leicester to remain clear at the top of the Premier League, while Dortmund suffered a damaging home loss to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga.
It left them seven points behind fourth-placed Frankfurt and, with seven games to play, in danger of missing out on Champions League qualification via that route. Their domestic season is teetering towards what their centre half, Mats Hummels, called a “sporting and financial catastrophe”. Yet there was plenty to like about how they approached the challenge here.
All eyes were on the Dortmund centre forward Haaland, but Guardiola started the match without a recognised No 9. He asked Bernardo Silva to lead the line at the outset, although his licence to roam was pronounced.
It was a typically fluid City approach, with De Bruyne pushing high from his attacking central midfield role – in and out of possession. Guardiola's selection surprise had been the omission of Raheem Sterling from the starting line-up.
De Bruyne's early goal was a body blow to Dortmund, who had wanted to be compact in a system that could easily become 4-5-1 when their wide attackers dropped back. The visitors found a few spaces in between the lines and there was a scare for City when Bellingham got a shot off in the seventh minute after buying a half yard from Kyle Walker. Ederson made a smart save.
Emre Can will not enjoy the inquest into the breakthrough, although City's pressing makes it so difficult for defensive midfielders to pick their passes forward.
Riyad Mahrez read Can's intentions and, when the winger made the interception and found De Bruyne, Dortmund were on the back foot and in trouble. De Bruyne ushered in Foden up the left and his low cross was returned at the far post by Mahrez. De Bruyne's finish was lethal.
Dortmund had their moments in the first half as Bellingham drove with intent and Reus got into a few dangerous areas.
The big one came when Bellingham chased a back pass towards Edersen and felt his eyes light up when the goalkeeper took a heavy touch, having left his area. Bellingham won the ball cleanly and walked it into the empty net only for the referee, Ovidiu Hategan, to suffer his nightmare moment.
Hategan had begun to lose his grip in the 29th minute when he blew for a City penalty after Rodri went down clutching his face. The ball reached him via a De Bruyne free-kick and Can had flicked a boot towards him. But the replays showed that if Can made any contact, it was with Rodri’s leg. It was pure gamesmanship from Rodri; VAR made the overrule.
City were able to keep Haaland at arms length in the first half but he is the kind of talent that can spark at any moment. So it was at the start of the second period when he exploded onto a Mahmoud Dahoud pass, went shoulder to shoulder with Rúben Dias, putting the City defender onto the floor to set up a one-on-one with Ederson. Haaland was slightly off balance; Ederson managed to make a crucial block.
City struggled to plot a course through Dortmund's massed ranks and Guardiola tried a different approach on the hour, a more conventional one, when he replaced Silva with Gabriel Jesus.
At the other end, meanwhile, John Stones fouled Haaland on the edge of the area and City were fortunate that Reus could not get his free-kick over the wall. There was also the heart-stopping moment when a Dias backpass only narrowly eluded the chasing Reus.
City appeared happier to try to protect the clean sheet rather than get onto the front foot in search of a second, although De Bruyne did get to the byline on 65 minutes to tee up Foden. Marwin Hitz made a vital save with his foot.
There would be further flickers from City with De Bruyne whistling a shot wide and Foden threatening on two further occasions before the late drama. – Guardian