Manchester City’s comeback was sealed exuberantly enough to postpone some awkward Champions League questions
Perhaps, if Pep Guardiola learned anything from a chaotic night in Germany’s industrial heartland, it was that you cannot keep a good narrative down. Leroy Sané had been left on the bench for his return to the Veltins Arena and, aside from any tactical considerations, it did not seem an unreasonable decision given the imperative that Manchester City went about their business quietly and clinically. Then he set off a rocket and, given the quandary his team had landed themselves in by that point, cool logic could wait for another day.
With five minutes left this had looked certain to be a hefty dose of medicine in Manchester City’s heaving, enervating tilt at a clean sweep of all four major trophies. Their away record in Champions League knockout games going into this fixture, five of their previous eight ending in defeat, rolled off the tongue at that stage and felt significant when set alongside their recently discovered taste for letting gilt-edged situations slip. A narrow reverse would still have made them favourites to progress but the victory, crowned by Raheem Sterling’s route‑one goal near the end, was sealed exuberantly enough to postpone some awkward questions.
A few had been sneaked in before the game. On Tuesday, Guardiola had been asked whether his eight‑year Champions League drought might be ascribed to the fact that, on the two occasions he won it with Barcelona, he was endowed with an array of talent that rendered coaching ability incidental. After all, could anybody screw up a bequest of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta? From there it is only a small leap to the awful “Is Pep a fraud?” debate and Guardiola has suffered it all before. “I’m sorry, I was lucky,” he offered with indulgent exasperation, throwing in a laugh that fooled nobody.
It was worth cutting him some slack. This was hardly the stage to reassert that Guardiola is the most influential manager of the past decade. Of the Premier League’s triple-header against German opposition it was comfortably the least-feted; Schalke’s domestic form offered them little outward hope and for City this was an occasion to knuckle down and keep doing what you do, a night at the Ruhr coalface with scant prospect of settling spurious internet arguments.
Yet by the end Guardiola had succeeded in coming away victorious and keeping the squabbles alive. “We’re not ready to fight for the final stages,” was his assessment and there was enough evidence to suggest that this time he was being sincere.
When the Sané nobody had expected – Schalke’s centre-back, Salif – helped hand City an early lead they were purring. The home side had barely been afforded a kick but, by the interval, Nabil Bentaleb had beaten Ederson twice from the spot. Concerns about the overwrought VAR delay for his first, as well as the issue of whether a system that slows an action down to become virtually unrecognisable can ever be honest in a sporting sense, will linger but City’s biggest problems screamed of recidivism.
A nagging problem for much of the season has been the sense that when the waters ahead shimmer that bit more invitingly they are easily distracted. It happened at Newcastle last month after Sergio Agüero had given them an even earlier leg-up and it happened against Crystal Palace and Leicester, too; in the moments before Bentaleb’s first strike they had allowed Schalke a morsel or two of encouragement and that, for anyone insisting on comparisons with Barcelona 2009-2011, is hardly the gimlet-eyed insistence of serial European champions.
Yet City do have Sané, who may not be able to autopilot them to European success but is amassing a body of work that may one day rival those Barça greats. If the plan was to smuggle him in and out of his old stomping ground then Guardiola had to opt for emergency measures as City struggled for long spells to break Schalke’s resistance.
But he became the story and showed that, even if the wider doubts linger, quality of this level may still write his side the most thrilling tale of all.