Pre-Match Social Media Talking Points
Reigning Champions League holders Manchester City got off to the requisite start to begin their title defense as the English giants saw off Serbian domestic hegemon FK Crvena Zvezda in a 3-1 win in the northwest of England.
After being gifted a straightforward Group G comprised of tonight’s opposition as well as RB Leipzig and BSC Young Boys, City are expected to walk the group comfortably, but on another night, with a different measure of luck, the story may have gotten off to a different beginning.
City’s expected dominance in front of home support at the Etihad came off without a hitch in the early stages of the opening stanza as Pep Guardiola’s men boasted over 80% possession in the first twenty-minutes of action while crafting a handful of half-decent chances.
One chance, in particular, stood out through Rodri after the Spanish midfielder danced his way into position before dropping his shoulder and unleashing a well-struck effort at Israeil keeper Omri Glazer, only for the full international to extend to turn aside the rasping drive.
Despite Phil Foden and Julián Álvarez linking up well as play continued throughout the first half, star striker Erling Haaland was rather quiet and seemingly going through the motions, with the balance of positive play stemming from the England and Argentine international midfielders which aided in Rodri’s ability to galavant forward into more advanced positions.
That all nearly changed in the 25th minute when Foden’s floated cross across goal after finding enough space down the left channel found Haaland, only for his headed effort to clatter Glazer’s bar when you would have otherwise staked your mortgage that City were bound for a deserved one-goal lead.
Glazer would come up big again for Crvena Zvezda four minutes later when he denied Nathan Aké's header after Álvarez’s corner deep to the unmarked Dutchman at the back post before Haaland once again missed his second guilt-edged chance of the evening when he blazed over the bar from less than 12 yards despite being free and clear to put City ahead.
Though City continued to knock on the gatehouse door, it was the Serbian giants that took a shock 1-0 lead through Ghanaian forward Osman Bukari in the 45thminute after VAR confirmed his well-timed run was offside, which sent the club’s questionable away support into rapture upon hearing the half-time whistle.
This came in the wake of Guardiola subbing off Bernardo Silva for Belgian starlet Jérémy Doku in what appeared to be a tactical decision on the night given City’s inability to turn dominance into tallys on the goal sheet.
City would come out swinging to begin the second half through Álvarez who found a fully-deserved equalizer just two minutes after the restart after he skipped around Glazer from a tight angle at the near spot to slot home after being released by Haaland.
Glazer finally made a near-critical error in goal after he fumbled his save from Álvarez which politely fell right to Haaland, but the Norwegian could not slot past the Israeli who did well to recover rapidly at close range to get something on the shot to turn it away.
The Champions League holders finally took the lead moments later when Álvarez’s curled free kick from the left channel failed to find a runner but ultimately curled high into the far post, with Glazer only able to get the slightest touch which was not enough to keep the ball out of the back of the net in what will ultimately go down as a massive error by the keeper.
Guardiola’s champions were rocking now and looked even more dangerous with every advance forward at fortress Etihad and would find a third through Rodri in the 73rd minute with a well-struck curled effort beyond Glazer and into the far corner after he found just enough room to dispatch his effort after gliding just inside the 18-yard-box.
On a night where one of the biggest upsets in recent Champions League history could have unfolded during the group stage, City still reigned supreme come full-time regardless of their sluggish start to open their title defense.
Full credit to Crvena Zvezda for coming to a very difficult ground to get a result in and during some passages of play looked as though they could have taken something away back to Belgrade. But, as they have done so often under Guardiola, City quality and strength in depth paid dividends when push came to shove while a bit of magic, as well as luck, coming together to see the reigning kings of Europe get off on the right footing early doors.