Manchester City seal top spot as Álvarez caps fightback win against RB Leipzig

<span>Photograph: Molly Darlington/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Molly Darlington/Reuters

Pep Guardiola was proud of his players’ fight when transforming what appeared certain defeat when Manchester City trailed 2-0 at half-time into a late victory. He was less enamoured of the actual display.

In introducing Julián Álvarez and Jérémy Doku early in the second half, Guardiola performed a masterstroke. Each was pivotal, the former finding the winner from a move that was decorated by Doku’s mastery of the ball before Phil Foden set Álvarez up.

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The last time City were two goals behind at the interval on home turf was in January, versus Tottenham in the Premier League. Then, Guardiola’s side scored four unanswered goals and the manager afterwards branded his players and everyone at the club “happy flowers”. The response he received was a treble-triumphant season. Tonight the more modest spoils of sealing top spot in Group G was City’s aim and this win ensures that. Yet despite now going 29 games unbeaten in Europe here, the manager pointed to the oddly dislocated display.

“We were lucky,” Guardiola said. “That is two warnings now after Chelsea [a 4-4 draw] – we were sloppy, had to win the duels. If we talk about the qualification it is a great night; 15 [points] from 15. If we talk about the game, we could be better. I was not sure, to be honest [about a comeback], the way we were playing the first half I was not sure. Not for the fact we were City and last CL winner, you have to earn it and there are moments you have to be better.”

The first crucial duel lost was by Manuel Akanji. He allowed the punt out of the goalkeeper Janis Blaswich’s hands to bounce to Loïs Openda, who ran in and rolled the ball past Stefan Ortega for the opener.

City’s riposte was fitful. A free-kick was won, Bernardo Silva dropped this on to Rúben Dias’s head and the defender steered the ball over in a moment as out-of-sync as the home team’s performance.

Loïs Openda opens the scoring for RB Leipzig at Manchester City

Now came the second portion of calamitous defending. Xavi Simons hit a ball along the left touchline towards Openda who this time made Dias lose a duel by spinning him, the Portuguese’s sluggish pace meaning he had zero chance of recovery. The striker zigzagged at goal, left Josko Gvardiol on the turf, and beat Ortega for a second time.

It meant that City’s goal-difference advantage was cut, at this juncture, to two in the battle to be group winners. But first up and more pressing for Guardiola was a half-time team talk to rescue this game.

The move he made was to take off the hapless Dias and hope his replacement, Nathan Aké, could cope better. Surely City could not be as poor in this period, the 45 minutes before the interval the worst under Guardiola of recent memory. Urgently needed was faster passing, slicker touches and more thrust to get Erling Haaland into the contest; a previous weak header easy for Blaswich to collect emblematic of all that was wrong for City.

Leipzig crowded them out in a stylistic copy of the Champions League holders when out of possession. Usually City’s craftiness pierces that tactic but not tonight, thus far. So Guardiola, eight minutes into the second half, took off Jack Grealish and Kyle Walker for Doku and Álvarez.

An instant dividend followed: Álvarez touched the ball to Foden, who tapped to Haaland, whose cold-eyed strike removed Blaswich as a factor. It was Haaland’s 12th against this opposition and a 40th in the competition in a record-low 35 appearances. Guardiola said: “He breaks the record. It’s good for him.”

Suddenly the home crowd was alive and City scented a comeback win as, in a sign of the changing momentum, Marco Rose took off his two-goal man Openda. The shift continued via the equaliser. Aké stroked the ball to Gvardiol whose crossfield pass found Foden. Now came a moment of class from the City No 47 whose dart left Mohamed Simakan a spectator, the finish going through Lukas Klostermann’s legs and in; that was 2-2.

Rose said: “I told the guys [at half-time] we made them angry.” They had, and City recovered admirably. Next time, though, as Guardiola warned, his men may be unable to respond quite so dramatically.