In a Group G also featuring Red Star Belgrade and Young Boys this trip to RB Leipzig appeared Manchester City’s toughest away fixture, so to depart the home of Germany’s fifth-place side with a victory is a fillip for Pep Guardiola’s men.
Beat Young Boys on matchday three at the Wankdorf Stadium and the defending champions will then be all but qualified and the manager can start to plot how to rest players as the season enters its attritional, defining winter phase.
City were not the all-conquering power they so often are and could rue how Loïs Openda was able to equalise Phil Foden’s fine opener: this was on the counter, the textbook way to breach their high line, in one of RB Leipzig’s rare attacks.
Foden’s strike came courtesy of Rico Lewis, whose star turn left his manager purring. “What a player, 18 years old. I’ve been a manager for 14, 15 years, training unbelievable players: to find one like him in the pockets, he is one of the best I’ve ever trained,” said Guardiola. “He’s a humble guy, doesn’t talk much.”
Retaining 89% of the ball, a pattern of City dominance was set, Manuel Akanji aiding this by padding forward from defence into central zones to add the extra man. This had Marco Rose’s unit playing chase-ball and bewitched when their opponents went through the gears.
Lewis did precisely this with a lightning turn-and-shot inside the area that was blocked by Lukas Klostermann and, as Leipzig’s rearguard panicked, Foden’s misfired follow-up should have been turned in by the lurking Bernardo Silva.
In this latest week of VAR controversy the Portuguese may have felt aggrieved when, moments later, he unloaded and hit the arm of Castello Lukeba, who was not facing the ball, in what was an archetypal “you’ve-seen-those-given” moment.
Lewis is already a force for the treble winners and illustrated why. Silva steered a pass along the right to where the youngster attacked and pulled a first-time cross backwards towards the penalty spot where Foden beat Janis Blaswich by hitting the finish into the turf, the ball bouncing high and up and into the net.
Lewis has a lissome skip that is deceptively quick and with this he produced a carbon copy of the action along the right but, this time, no colleague was able to take advantage.
When Openda claimed a first Leipzig corner 42 minutes showed on the clock: an apt summation of how under the cosh they were. Still, a 1-0 City lead at half-time was a repeat of the scoreline in February’s last-16 first leg here: Leipzig won the second period and the tie ended poised at 1-1.
Then, they required 25 minutes to level, tonight less than three was the count, as Rúben Dias was out-muscled by Openda, who hit Christian Poulsen with a pass that was returned straight away. As the sluggish Dias chugged back, the Belgian striker entered a footrace with Akanji who he held off, in City’s area, before beating Ederson, finishing expertly off the keeper’s right post.
Erling Haaland has eight strikes in nine appearances for the champions but did not net against Red Star in the competition opener and was tentative when pivoting and shooting as City roved forward in search of an instant riposte. More instinctive was the jabbing of a right boot at Jack Grealish’s cross but, once more, no dice for the Norwegian phenomenon.
After a run of two defeats – to Wolves in the Premier League and Newcastle in the Carabao Cup – a draw, at least, would steady City and yield an invaluable away point. But, of course, they scented victory, Grealish foraging along his left flank, swinging in one corner that bounced all the way across to the far side.
Yet without the injured Kevin De Bruyne in the XI, City lack a vital element of fantasy that can break open tight contests like this one. Foden is as close as they have to a replica and a free-kick from the right that beat Blaswich but not his bar was a reminder of his ability.
Haaland yelped when blazing over a huge chance to score the winner but it proved immaterial: victory, then, despite no goal for a No 9 who has notched 11 in six previous outings against Leipzig – the best single tally of his career.
“I am very happy,” was the verdict from Guardiola.