CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: EIGHT GOAL THRILLER AT ETIHAD AS MANCITY TRIUMPH OVER MONACO
Maybe this is the game through which Manchester City will finally learn to love the Champions League. For if they cannot now, they probably never will.
There were eight goals scored, and all but the last changed the state of play. Manchester City ahead, Monaco level, Monaco ahead, Manchester City level, Monaco ahead, Manchester City level, Manchester City ahead. And then even further ahead.
It was the first time eight goals had been scored in the first leg of a Champions League tie, and the first in a European Cup tie since Real Madrid beat Swarovski Tirol 9-1 on October 24, 1990.
There is a substantial difference, however, between a one-sided drubbing and this twister of a tie, in which reputations were made and trashed as the energy and balance of power deliriously swirled.
What an occasion it was, what a spectacle. City almost out of Europe one moment, appearing stronger than ever the next — 3-2 down with 20 minutes to go, 5-3 up 12 minutes later. And Monaco missed a penalty.
A word of warning, mind you. Against a Monaco team with this attacking potential, even two goals clear, no tie is over with 90 minutes still to play. City will have to be at their best in the return. Both teams are at their strongest going forward, and 3-1, for instance, would send Monaco through.
Perhaps, after this, City’s supporters will begin to see Europe’s greatest tournament as more than a vehicle to vent their anger at UEFA. They were ready to shout conspiracy here, too, after a first-half penalty they thought should have been awarded, and one in the second-half they thought shouldn’t — they were right about the first, not the second — but they went home happy enough.
And why not? It was the greatest match here since Sergio Aguero’s title-winning goal against Queens Park Rangers and, naturally, he was at the centre of it last night, too. Twice, he equalised, and also had a hand in the fifth. His opposite number for Monaco will feel more of a mix of emotions. Radamel Falcao scored twice — as many goals as he got in this city for Manchester United in an entire season — but missed the penalty that changed the game. Had it gone in, Monaco would have led 3-1 and maybe City would have crumbled.
Instead, Falcao’s failure re-energised the stadium in a howl of righteous anger and encouragement. Even though Monaco did score again after that, this surge of emotion carried City forward.
It had started well enough, the hugely impressive Leroy Sane shooting over after seven minutes, Monaco’s defensive rock Kamil Glik booked for a foul on him moments later – and out of the return leg. City had already gone close twice when they opened the scoring after 26 minutes.
Raheem Sterling scored it, but Sane’s celebrations were wildest, and justifiably so. It was Sane in midfield, holding off a succession of challenges and keeping the ball under control; Sane who worked the ball to David Silva; Sane who made ground for the return and Sane who struck the cross. Sterling, in a great spot, tucked it away, but Sane was worthy of an assist. About four of them, in fact.
City’s flaws, however, are significant — and one of them is the distribution of goalkeeper Willy Caballero. The problem is Pep Guardiola wants him to be something he is not: good at football.
He had already mislaid several passes when, in the 31st minute, he tried to float one into midfield, failed miserably, and saw the ball mopped up by Fabinho, who laid the ball off, got it back and hit a deep, low cross that Falcao met with a magnificent diving header. Here, at last, was the player Manchester United thought they were getting in 2014.
There followed the incident that looked to have turned the game in Monaco’s favour, while also turning the air blue with local fury. In the 34th minute, Aguero was put away, rounding goalkeeper Danijel Subasic only to be sent tumbling. Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz brandished what many expected to be a red for the Monaco man. Instead, it was a yellow, provoking groans. Groans that turned to howls on realisation it was a yellow for Aguero, for diving.
The mood was hardly improved when Yaya Toure was booked for a foul on Bakayoko – thanks to another alleged pass from Caballero — and then Fernandinho followed him. The free-kick this time was taken quickly, 18-year-old Kylian Mbappe alert to it, Nicolas Otamendi and Caballero not. What started as a simple chip over the top was smacked smartly into the net by the teenager tagged the new Thierry Henry. He certainly looked the part in spells here.
The second half, however, belonged to City. Eventually.
First, the game-changer. In the 48th minute, as if to hone the local persecution complex, Monaco were awarded a penalty. That it looked justified, Otamendi bringing down Falcao, seemed to hardly matter. Outrage enveloped the Etihad. If this affected Falcao, he is not the player he looked at other times. Either way, he took an age over the kick and then struck it, soft to the right and far too near City’s goalkeeper. Never give a sucker an even break. Falcao did. Caballero saved.
Now the stadium was beserk for revenge. Maybe this troubled Subasic. His goalkeeping for City’s equaliser was as poor as Falcao’s penalty taking. Sterling put Aguero away, but hopeless handling from Subasic at the near post turned a tame shot into an equaliser and brought to an end 580 minutes of goalless Champions League knockout football for Aguero.
But if there is a lesson for City in the return it is that Monaco were not done. Falcao got away from Stones with ease and finished with a quite sublime chip over the head of Caballero, from close range, up and down like Andy Murray to the back of the court.
Yet, having seemingly thrown it away, again, from nowhere a blue tornado arrived.
For some reason, Monaco forgot City’s defensive vulnerability and allowed themselves to be pushed back. Fatal mistake. City, like them, are at their best going forward and Aguero has a point to prove, having lost his place to Gabriel Jesus. What a sweet strike it was to equalise again – volleying in a David Silva corner from 12 yards, but Monaco had allowed him far too much space.
Now Guardiola’s men were as irresistible as Monaco had once seemed. Another corner saw them ahead, this time from Kevin De Bruyne, flicked on by Toure and converted by Stones, inexplicably unmarked, at the far post. Had he not put it in, it would have fallen to Aguero, similarly unguarded. Monaco were falling apart.
The fifth confirmed that. Toure, Silva, Aguero and finally Sane combined in a wonderful passing move, yet with a striking absence of challenges from men in red shirts.
Delirium reigned. There have been a few revivals here, but none quite like this.