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 were the last to do 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 them, and had Guardiola’s men coasting before Rodri applied the coup de grace.
As the Spaniard did with the goal that claimed the club a first Champions League in May, this was a curled finish that had Guardiola pumping the air and purring about his midfielder’s excellence.
“He is the best [in Europe]. Hopefully he can be [even] better, have a good mentality but he is an extraordinary holding midfielder. He loves to arrive in the final third and dribble and shoot,” the manager said.
“Champions of Europe” had been the 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.
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: the visiting goalkeeper beat the ball away – as he would do throughout the opening period.
Phil Foden had lined up on the left but flitted about and, now, applied a touch that had Álvarez swooping in. This time the shot was held cleanly.
The script of how to prosper against City is simple, well-thumbed and very difficult to apply: hit them on the break. After Álvarez sold Walker too short near Red Star’s D, Osman Bukari tried 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. This display confirmed that should be the case, and his next contributions were a cross that had Haaland hitting Glazer’s bar, then a through-pass for Rodri.
In between, Aké’s header sent Glazer diving to palm away before, in a fast-and-furious passage of play, Hwang In-beom had Ederson doing the same, at the other end, in Red Star’s first effort on target before Erling Haaland unusually failed from eight yards out: under zero pressure, the Norwegian blazed over.
Last season, Red Star’s coach, Barak Bakhar, was in charge of Maccabi Haifa and led the Israeli side into the group stages for the first time in 13 years where they were roundly thrashed 7-2 (by Paris Saint-Germain) and 6-1 (Benfica), recording a sole win (over Juventus) before crashing out.
City are capable of administering similar hammerings so the visiting coach and his team could chalk up the interval lead as a fair achievement.
It came from that well-thumbed script: Bukari raced in behind City’s high line and smashed home and, while initially ruled offside, the VAR ruled correctly the 24-year-old Ghana international was onside and so those in blue trailed as the sides wandered off for half-time refreshment.
The goal came after Glazer had repelled a close-range Foden header and Silva was replaced by Jeremy Doku for an unspecified injury. “I haven’t spoken to the doctors – apparently for the next games he won’t be able to [play],”said Guardiola. The Portuguese joins De Bruyne, Jack Grealish, John Stones and Mateo Kovacic on the injured list. “We are in trouble but it is what it is. I’m not going to say we have a lot of injuries.” Guardiola said.
Two minutes after the break and his team were level. Álvarez rolled to Haaland whose return was weighted for the Argentinian and he tapped beyond Glazer. This, at last, was ruthless from City 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 goal. 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 almost 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 thanks to Rodri.