It’s going to be hard to put into words what just happened. Manchester City’s Champions League match in Gelsenkirchen against FC Schalke 04, which the Blues ultimately won 3-2, gave us all the elements of an instant classic. Every fiber in my body wants to jump right to the final ten minutes when City made a heroic comeback, but I suppose it would make the most sense to start at the beginning.
Pep Guardiola sent out a starting eleven that returned to the formation where Fernandinho lines up as the right-sided center back. The Brazilian was partnered in central defense by Nicolas Otamendi while Kyle Walker and Aymeric Laporte occupied the fullback positions. Similar to the Arsenal match, Fernandinho was responsible to step forward into the midfield on the attack, where he was joined by Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, and Ilkay Gundogan. The lineup was rounded out by a front three of Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, and Bernardo Silva from left to right.
Manchester City started the match incredibly well, and it appeared as if the Blues would cruise through this matchup like many in the football world expected. A beautifully choreographed free kick culminating in a Sergio Aguero header pushed over the bar by Schalke keeper Ralf Fährmann was the first sign of the gap in quality between the two sides.
City’s quick and decisive combination passing was effective in creating space against the 5-4-1 formation implemented by Domenico Tedesco. This style of play gave De Bruyne time and space to get off a left-footed strike on goal in the 16’ that targeted the center of goal, unfortunately leading to an easy save. Regardless, Guardiola’s squad looked dangerous and it only seemed to be a matter of time before they broke the scoreless deadlock.
We only had to wait two more minutes for that inevitability to occur when, in the 18’, the Blues got on the board. It was well known prior to the match that Schalke have a disposition to play out of the back but struggle to pass through the press. And it was at this weakness that City struck. Fährmann made the poor decision of passing to center back Salif Sané and it was quite easily jumped by David Silva. The Spaniard only had to square it across to Sergio Aguero for one of the simplest finishes he’ll ever have.
The momentum was heavily shifted in City’s favor and a second seemed imminent. A midfield turnover by Schalke led to an odd man rush that petered out in the 24’ when Sterling was slow in his decision making.
No matter, another chance and goal would surely come, right? Well, the opportunities may have been there but the goal didn’t come until this match was turned on its head in the 33’.
Schalke got on the counter and right back Daniel Caligiuri was able to cut back onto his left foot and fire a shot from outside the box. The entire play seem fairly innocuous on its surface and deflected wide of goal. But a video assisted replay (VAR) revealed that the shot hit off of the outstretched arm of Nicolas Otamendi and a penalty was awarded. It was a lengthy process and midfielder Nabil Bentaleb didn’t take the penalty until the 38’, but when he did, he sent Ederson the wrong way and gave Schalke the equalizer.
The goal didn’t just change the scoreline, but the overall vibe of the match as well. City looked visibly frustrated by the call and the verbal complaints towards referee Carlos del Cerro Grande from players on both sides were the defining feature of the remainder of the first half.
Another foul call questioned by the frustrated City squad in the 43’ gave Schalke a free kick on the edge of the attacking third. Caligiuri sent a ball into the box that Ederson was comfortably able to punch away. But the play ended with del Cerro Grande once again pointing at the penalty spot and handing a yellow card to Fernandinho for impeding Salif Sané’s run from behind.
It’s hard to argue the contact wasn’t there, but that type of jostling occurs in the box on most set pieces and goes unnoticed. Either way, VAR upheld the call and Bentaleb returned to the penalty spot in the 45’ to give Schalke a 2-1 lead despite a valiant effort by Ederson. City created a good chance prior to halftime, but Bernardo sent the strike over the bar and the Blues went into the break facing a one goal deficit.
Halftime couldn’t have come at a better time for Manchester City as it allowed for a mental reset and gave Pep Guardiola the chance to give his team a talking to. The Blues came out with more composure and openings presented themselves for both Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero within the first five minutes of the half.
But Schalke receded further into their own zone now that they held the lead and a solid defensive shape along with some last ditch tackles kept them from conceding. Despite their efforts though, it seemed unfeasible for City to be held scoreless in the second half.
That would be until this match went from bad to worse in the 68’ when Nicolas Otamendi made a reckless and unnecessary tackle on Guido Burgstaller near midfield. He had previously been given a yellow card for his handball in the box and received yet another here, ending his night and leaving City down a man.
The repercussions of this event were clear. Not only did it hamper City’s ability to get back into this match, but also had implications on the second leg when Otamendi will now be unavailable. Optimistic expectations among the City faithful definitely waned, if they didn’t disappear altogether into a fit of shock. Another blown one goal lead was staring us in the face and losing to the 14th placed team in the Bundesliga went from extremely unlikely to very possible.
Pep Guardiola didn’t wait to react and immediately brought on Vincent Kompany for David Silva to reinforce his backline and make sure his team didn’t head back to Manchester any worse for wear at minimum. City were actually quite lucky because Tedesco instructed his team to bunker even further in their half instead of considering the man advantage an opportunity to press for more.
As a result, the Blues still were able to control the ball and get on the front foot. Yet all of City’s chances ended with a misplaced final ball/shot or a defensive perseverance from the home side. With his team now playing out of a 4-4-1, Guardiola made an interesting change that ultimately turned the tides of this match. In the 78’, he took off Sergio Aguero and gave Leroy Sane the chance to play against his former club.
The German didn’t need much time to make an impact when he stepped up for a free kick at a difficult central position approximately 25-30 yards from goal in the 85’. It is certainly a challenging spot to shoot from but Sane didn’t seem to know that. His shot was perfect and beautiful in every way possible. Up and over the wall it went and curled right into the side netting, giving Fährmann no chance.
If any City fans were sitting at that point, they weren’t any longer and quite a few may have jumped through the ceiling. Yes, it was a poor and unlucky performance through and through so far, but trading a loss for a draw with two away goals is a good result in a Champions League first leg.
Guardiola made his final change in the 87’, bringing on Oleksandr Zinchenko for Kevin De Bruyne to put everyone back in their natural positions so City could see out what now felt like a good result.
Who would have thought it would get better from there?
City continued to control possession but were forced to reset play to Ederson in the final minute before stoppage time. The Brazilian took one healthy touch to set himself up and then booted the ball the length of the field in the direction of Raheem Sterling.
Sterling was isolated with left back Bastian Oczipka, a player with a 5 inch height advantage on the Englishman. But as the ball (which was perfect) was in its flight, Sterling expertly bumped into Oczipka with the exact right weight to not be a foul and also put the defender off balance. And just like that, Sterling was running at goal from the right with a full head of steam.
Fährmann came off his line to confront Sterling, who took a bouncing ball and fired it mid hop into the side netting. The Schalke keeper may have taken a poor path to the ball but the finish was an absolute peach nevertheless, slotted right into the side netting with expert precision. From start to finish, this play was a testament to the evolution of Sterling as a player.
At this point, the best kind of heart problems probably occurred for more than a few City fans. The Blues had a 3-2 against all odds and an inexplicable victory on the road was now minutes away. Guardiola’s team had no problems surviving the five minutes of stoppage time and we could all exhale, the victory was officially in hand.
There are plenty of criticisms you can throw at Manchester City after this match. It never should have gotten to the point it did, regardless of refereeing decisions. But this game carries so much more weight with the positive than the negative.
To start, a one goal victory with three away goals is a tremendous result in a Champions League first leg. Yes, City were capable of a more lopsided result but the natural variation of the sport can always disrupt what should happen. On top of that, the in-game context that played out actually makes this result seem so much better! They are now in a great position to advance further, with even a mediocre result being enough from the home leg.
Additionally, the collective mental strength the Blues showed through the prolonged adversity is a necessary component of any championship caliber team. This match could have easily looked just like the ones against Leicester City, Crystal Palace, and Newcastle United. Manchester City have shown incapable of responding to these exact struggles and game flow in recent memory, but they are adapting and improving. It’s easy to expect greatness from them every single match but we all know that isn’t possible. But the ability to grind out victories when not at your best turns great teams into all time great teams. It’s yet to be determined if this Manchester City team will be an all time great one, but if so, this match will a defining reason why.