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The signs were ominous for City, being an English team facing Monaco in the Champions League. No English team had won against Monaco in the competition since 1995 when Leeds United knocked them out. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Spurs all had forgettable memories against the team from Ligue 1. On Tuesday night, the great part for Manchester City was that they had one of those coaches who you knew would have studied the opposition inside out and has the ability to read the play on the field like few in the business can, plus they had a bevy of attacking players just waiting to be let loose and who have been revving, basically on full throttle, for the past few games they have played.
At the Etihad, Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco flew out of the traps fast and furious, as expected. They pressed City all over the pitch and for a while it was a game of interceptions, recoveries, quick transitions, and counter attacks with neither team relenting in their pressing. The Monaco right back, Djibril Sidibé was finding space on the right and whipped in the first cross of the night alerting City to the danger that was to come. City responded in similar fashion when Yaya Touré released Sterling who just happened to be offside, before his shot was smothered by Danijel Subašić, the Monaco goalkeeper. In pugilistic terms, these were jabs and it would not take long before we would see the teams squaring up to each other and trading hooks and punches.
In the opening few minutes, Monaco was consistently crowding outside of the City box, winning possession numerous times. In most instances, the Citizens immediately found an overlapping teammate. Otherwise, they sent crosses into the box, which City managed to clear. Leroy Sané, on the other hand, was proving to be a menace for Monaco centerback Kamil Glik down the left flank, and after a cynical bit of play, Glik received an early yellow.1 Monaco brought a menace of their own to Manchester, too. 18-year-old sensation Kylian Mbappé was, seemingly, always racing away from City defenders and always posed a threat after a Monaco recovery. A few minutes later, the 22-year-old Bernardo Silva showed his worth when he nutmegged Touré and rode off two challenges before neatly turning away to release Radamel Falcao.
On the other side, Sterling, Sané, and Sergio Agüero were finding plenty of space, given the high pressing line Monaco had adopted. The high line allowed both Sterling and Agüero plenty of chances to get into spaces deep down the right half-space, wrecking the positioning of the Monaco goalkeeper. City got their first clear sight of goal when Kevin De Bruyne whipped in a cross with his first touch on the right of the Monaco box, but Agüero got his foot in just as the cross zipped by. The goal arrived for City in typical slick fashion, with Sané winning the ball on the left, dribbling and exchanging passes with Silva before another of his low crosses found Sterling lurking inside the penalty area. The menace of Sané and the enterprise of Sterling combining to give City the lead was refreshing to watch. These two youngsters are clearly blossoming as attackers under Pep’s tutelage.
It wasn’t long before Monaco evened things up, making City keeper Willy Caballero the guilty party. Caballero’s clearance was intercepted by Benjamin Mendy, who sent Fabinho racing down their right to send a cross, which Falcao would meet mid-air with his head and place neatly into the right corner. Shades of Robin Van Persie’s flying header against Spain at the FIFA World Cup in 2014 came to mind, though Falcao had less ground to fly and cover than the Dutchman.
Controversy soon made an appearance as Agüero was given a yellow for diving, when it was clear, via replays, that he was clipped ever so slightly by the onrushing Subašić, who had left a little bit of his leg for Agüero to trip over. The stadium exploded in collective anger and anguish, no one more than Pep himself, fuming up and down the touchline, unable to believe the gravity of injustice. With the mood being one of give-and-take, Monaco immediately threatened on the other end with Mbappé when Fabinho struck a free kick in the general direction of the City right flank, and Mbappé again was the first to reach, with Nicolás Otamendi no match for his pace. The shot that made it 2-1 for Monaco was a screamer, and in that move Mbappé showed what he could bring to any team with serious attacking ambition – a fascinating mix of anticipation, speed, and confidence. Fernandinho was stranded far off from the action, too slow to anticipate where the free kick would have landed and too lazy to catch up to Mbappé.
City reorganised and resumed their own attacking but found a dogged Monaco defence repelling it all. Their high press and immediate turnover of possession was working wonders for their attackers to break into a counter at the other end and the silky Bernardo Silva found Falcao again, who lashed a shot into the side netting.
The second half was a haze. Four goals to City and one for Monaco meant this would be one of the most entertaining ties of this season’s Round of 16. Mendy sent a cross to Falcao, who was seemingly brought down by Otamendi. The referee took his time – rightly so, because it was not a clear-cut foul – before awarding Monaco the penalty. Falcao sent what would be one of his weakest efforts to date, and Caballero, maybe not half expecting such a downer of a shot, saved it albeit with a fumble.
The penalty miss prompted Monaco to rush at City again with Mbappé and Thomas Lemar both finding ample space on the by-lines to the right. City were barely holding on and hold on they needed to, with the Monaco attack waiting to sense complacency or fear. The Monaco attackers continually crowded City around the box like a swarm of bees in red and white. City pulled one back when Sterling, who had won possession deep in the City half, hurtled down the right to find Agüero in space. He found the ball at his feet, with two Monaco defenders staying close to him on either side, and lashed a shot into the right corner that Subašić allowed to get through him.
With the score at 2-2, it was Monaco’s turn to score, when a long looping ball found Falcao vying with Stones. Stones, presumably aware that Falcao had entered the box, hit the ground after a failed attempt to get to the ball, and Falcao drew Caballero out neatly before chipping over the keeper. Game on.
The intent that City had shown in attack had been troubling Monaco since the start, it was soon becoming obvious that one team would just have to outscore the other; no one was in the mood to stop. City then did what they seldom do; score two quick goals from two corners in the span of five minutes. Agüero volleyed one in, and Stones booted the other, both from impeccable corner kicks. The defining goal for City came when Fabinho conceded a cheap free kick in a dangerous area to Sane. David Silva, the smoothest of midfield operators, chipped a pass cutting the Monaco defence in half and suddenly there was Agüero, Sané, and Sterling all menacingly sprinting towards Subašić. Agüero took one touch before passing to Sané, who guided it in for goal number five.
The match ended 5-3 in what looked like the aftermath of a heavy metal concert. Players were dazed and breathless after jostling with each other for 90 minutes in the mosh pit that the Etihad had become. The most important takeaway from the match was the resurgence of Radamel Falcao, showcasing his predatory instincts, and leading the Monaco line with pace and intensity throughout, which means the tie isn’t over yet. Second, the City defence and goalkeeping position leave much to be desired, and this was a day when the attack bailed them out. Three away goals would signal the end of most teams in this competition, but City have their attack to thank, most of all Agüero, who showed Pep what he is capable of when on song, and the electric Sané, who didn’t show any signs of slowing down even while playing the full 90 minutes, a testament to his game involvement and attacking verve.
A lot more needs to be said and written about Kylian Mbappé, the French youngster, who has oodles of pace and was a constant threat to the City defence, leaving markers in his trail and twisting and turning away from tackles at will. Monaco’s midfield partners Fabinho and Tiemoué Bakayoko provided a solid platform which ensured Monaco had no problems recycling the ball when recovering possession or alienating their defence when the full backs pushed forward, which was frequent. Bernardo Silva showed flashes of his brilliance, all smooth glides and tact, reason enough for him to be on the radar of most European clubs.
Guardiola knows the tie isn’t over, Leonardo Jardim knows it, too. The intent with which Jardim’s Monaco attacked even after the score went to 3-3 pointed to a devotion to attack that is extremely refreshing at this stage of the competition. If City come up with a lone away goal in the second leg, it would spell a long road for Monaco to come back into this tie. The interesting part is that neither of these teams believe they are done.