If Manchester City get beaten in a Champions League dead rubber and nobody is there to see it, did it really happen? Certainly that will be the only crumb of comfort for Pep Guardiola as he debriefs this silent shambles, in which his half-interested side were serially cut open, Kyle Walker managed to get himself suspended for the last-16 and the only flicker of experimentation was a pointless three minutes given to Cole Palmer at the end.
Normally City are peerless when the stakes are at their lowest. How do you think they won all those League Cups? But here they seemed to get sucked into a perfect vortex of disinterest: some combination of the situation and the empty stadium and the bitter cold and the fact that Leipzig still needed a result to seal third place and qualify for the Europa League. Few City players distinguished themselves here. Zack Steffen was good in goal.
Riyad Mahrez scored a late consolation. But the centre-halves were poor, the midfield curiously underpowered and Kevin de Bruyne some way off the pace, even if he could still have snatched a point with a rasping shot at the death.
“In the first half we lacked rhythm, but the second half was much better,” Guardiola argued. “One or two mistakes, they punished us. In general we made an incredible group stage. We qualified with one game left in a tough group, so we are more than satisfied.”
With City already guaranteed top spot in the group, a certain churn and rotation was inevitable. João Cancelo, Bernardo Silva, Ederson and Rodri were all rested. And yet the team Guardiola named was still unnervingly strong, an XI of established full internationals. De Bruyne returned in midfield, with Phil Foden and Mahrez either side of Jack Grealish up front. The message to City’s impressive band of youngsters was clear enough. This is still the Champions League. You earn this.
No freebies, and no fans either. The RB Arena was closed to the public in light of Germany’s alarming rise in Covid cases, and though City established themselves as the kings of pandemic football last season they were a little sleepy here. Leipzig may be at something of a crossroads at the minute, with coach Jesse Marsch sacked at the weekend and the club lying 11th in the Bundesliga, but here their movement was crisp and sharp.
In the sublime Dominik Szoboszlai, as well as their spirited defensive resistance in the second half, there remains plenty here to build on.
Su 23 minutes they found a way through. It was an aimless-looking goal-kick from Peter Gulacsi, but City were slow on the second ball and in a flash Konrad Laimer had set Szoboszlai clear with a delightful swerving through-pass. Szoboszlai has been described as Hungary’s most talented footballer since Ferenc Puskas, although the playmaker is yet to really set the Bundesliga aflame since his move in January. Qui, anche se, his talent was in full evidence: the clever run, the turn of pace, the quick feet to take the ball around Steffen and finish into an empty net.
City began to string some moves together as the half went on, but they still looked brittle in defensive transition. Emil Forsberg could have made it 2-0 within seconds of the restart. André Silva certainly should seven minutes before half-time. Raheem Sterling replaced Foden at the break, with Grealish switching to the left and Ilkay Gündogan pushing up, but there was still precious little intensity to go with their usual possession and territory. Insieme a 20 minutes left, John Stones was unwisely drawn towards the ball, Forsberg burst clear and Silva finished with men queueing up to shoot.
That was probably the moment when Guardiola realised he should probably have spent his Tuesday evening curled up with a box set. Even the sight of Mahrez heading in Oleksandr Zinchenko’s cross from close range failed to move him. As the game leaked away the futility of the whole enterprise seemed to dawn on City all at once. With eight minutes left Walker was sent off for a childish hack on Szoboszlai. “A red card, definitely,” Guardiola admitted afterwards.
Ancora, inexplicably, James McAtee and Roméo Lavia continued to shiver on the bench. Palmer was restricted to a single touch of the ball. And yet despite everything, City might yet have nicked a point through Grealish and De Bruyne, who both saw shots drift agonisingly wide. It was a reminder, se necessario, that even when they are quite bad, City are never really that bad.
This was a nightmarish evening, but not one you feel will leave any real scars. Dopotutto, the hard work had already been done. Besides, if you are going to implode in calamity, you may as well do it in a game like this.