MANCHESTER, England – There were Borussia Dortmund players sprawled out on the grass, their bodies suddenly exhausted and their spirits sinking at the last moment. Manchester City’s substitutes and coaching staff greeted the damage-inflicting goal with loud throaty roars, leaping from their seats, pumping their fists into the air.
All last minute wins are dramatic – the clue is in the name – just as all last minute losses are devastating, but not all of the emotions they generate for winners are the same. Some are happy, with smiles and cries of joy. And some are rooted in something much closer to relief, the feel of a dodging bullet, moments encountered with gritted teeth and defiant cries.
This, for Manchester City, was sort of a B-Column opportunity. Pep Guardiola’s side had, after all, been considered an overwhelming favorite: playing at home, soaring alone to the top of the Premier League, almost untouchable since the start of the year, and imperious in the Champions League. He hadn’t conceded a goal so much in this competition since the opening game of the group stage. It looks like a club inexorably approaching an unprecedented domestic and European quadruple.
His opponent, meanwhile, was in crisis. Dortmund is between the managers. He languishes fifth in the Bundesliga, he’s unlikely to return to this competition next season unless he can win it this time around. His prized possession – forward Erling Haaland – is apparently starting to glance away, wondering if he could find a home where he can more easily achieve his ambitions. No game at all, in other words, for a team as smooth and fluid as Manchester City.
And yet, it wasn’t until the match entered its 90th minute that Phil Foden managed to squeeze into the game-winning goal, 2-1, for City. Even so, despite all of Dortmund’s desperation, a sense of at least slight disappointment will linger over City for the next week or so, knowing that the job not only remains unfinished but may well turn out to be more complex than expected.
Guardiola’s side will, of course, expect to advance to the first Champions League semi-final of his tenure – in his fifth season, a wait a bit longer than he and the club were probably expecting – after the return leg in Germany next week; City are, without a doubt, a more complete and polite team than Dortmund. This is how it should be: the latter is the kind of place elite players come from, after all. The first is usually the kind of place they go to.
But while there is an undeniable difference in experience and expectations, in financial weight, in individual quality and in collective organization, these advantages do not necessarily carry as much weight in an individual match as they could during the course. of a season. In the blink of an eye, over an hour and a half, they are not as decisive as we like to suppose.
And so a team as flawed as Dortmund can play a team as fine as Manchester City and be on hand to escape with a draw and, above all, come away with an away goal. Not even to escape, in fact, because for long stretches the German side kept the Premier League leaders at bay with if not easily then certainly some comfort.
City took the lead only because of a serious unforced error by Emre Can, who carelessly gave the ball as his side started to win the game. Guardiola’s side only started creating chances with any frequency in the final 20 minutes, as Dortmund began to show the first flicker of weariness.
The whole time, too, Dortmund carried no little threat. His threat is not as well established as that of City, of course. He doesn’t have much control or balance; it certainly doesn’t bring that sense of inevitability that City has turned into an art form, that sense that a goal can and will happen any minute, as sure as the sun comes up in the morning.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t pose problems, ask questions, cause trouble. Jude Bellingham should have tied the score in the first half as his goal was instead ruled out due to an extremely dubious foul on Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson by referee Ovidiu Hategan.
Haaland might also have scored after half-time, releasing a challenge from Rúben Dias with surprising and breathtaking ease, only to see Ederson foil his finish. When Haaland chose his captain, Marco Reus, to draw the standard of his squad – and, for a while, to give Dortmund an exciting result to bring back to Germany – it was no less, really, than it deserved.
Foden’s 90th-minute goal, of course, denied Dortmund, but Guardiola knows his team’s advantage is slim. He already knows full well that the best plans can be broken down at this stage in the Champions League – by Lyon last year, by Tottenham the previous season, by Liverpool in 2018 – and that sometimes it’s the teams that embrace the chaos which is most effective in achieving this.
Dortmund certainly fits this bill. He’s got a rising superstar in Haaland – there’s a reason why, strangely enough, one of Hategan’s assistant referees appeared to ask the Norwegian for his autograph as they walked away from the pitch and down the tunnel after the kick off. final whistle – but it is not alone. Dortmund are not a solo group, no matter how good Haaland is.
“If I chose a player from Dortmund, he would have quality,” Guardiola said before the game. He was right, of course. Maybe not as good as City, clearly: Dortmund couldn’t leave Raheem Sterling, Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus on the bench. But enough to cause trouble, enough to cause damage: not over a whole year, perhaps, but over a single evening.
There’s a reason City are favored to win this contest. No team, except perhaps Bayern Munich, can reach such a high level as Guardiola’s side. But this competition is rarely so simple. The gaps between the teams are much thinner than they appear, and all you need on a given night is a puncher’s luck.