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Champions League Gold: Manchester City 5-3 Monaco (2016/17) - Attack, Attack, Attack

Ross Kelsall relives the full story of an unforgettable European evening under the lights at the Etihad Stadium. Iconic strikers and emerging superstars shine as two teams who refuse to take a backward step serve up the highest-scoring first leg in Champions League knockout history.

“That’s why the people contacted me to come here, I love to play in that way. I think it’s something special for football when two teams want to play in that way – attack v attack – at the end the football is marvellous. If one team can score a thousand, million goals, it’s Monaco.”

Pep Guardiola is suitably awestruck as he reflects on an extraordinary night of Champions League drama at the Etihad Stadium.

He has just watched his Manchester City team concede three goals, at home, in the first leg of a last-16 tie - a scenario that would leave most ordinary managers fretting.

But then Guardiola is no ordinary manager. And what’s more, City are no ordinary team.

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With five goals of their own, they’ve more than played their part in a bona fide classic - the highest-scoring first leg of a Champions League knockout tie of all time.

The helter-skelter thriller is a glorious endorsement of the best element of Guardiola’s philosophy - an unwavering commitment to free-flowing, attacking football.

There’s just one problem: Monaco have exposed its worst elements, too. And in doing so, Leonardo Jardim’s artisans have proved to the world that they are no ordinary team, either.

Guardiola’s effusive post-match eulogy suggests he knows it only too well.

 

 

Killer instinct

20 February 2017. It’s 384 days since Guardiola was named City boss and as is the norm for the Spaniard in mid-February, he is preparing for a Champions League last-16 first leg.

It is his eighth consecutive season at this stage of the competition, having never before failed to reach at least the semi-finals during his glittering managerial career.

The previous summer he had left Bayern Munich for a club that also made the final four of Europe’s premier competition - for the first time in its history.

His arithmetic may let him down but the overarching point is not lost on Guardiola.

“We are delighted to be in the last 16. We are a club with a short history in the Champions League, only five or six times we’ve made the last 16,” he tells journalists assembled at the City Football Academy during his pre-match press conference.

In fact, they’ve only been here three times before.

Predecessor Manuel Pellegrini guided City to at least the last 16 in each of his three seasons at the helm – including the aforementioned semi-final in 2016 – but under Roberto Mancini they failed to progress beyond the group stages.

Despite City’s lack of what Guardiola’s arch-rival Jose Mourinho would later label “football heritage” on a European stage, the Premier League giants are expected to mount a concerted challenge for the trophy.

Having finished as runners-up to Barcelona - a team Guardiola twice led to Champions League glory – in Group C, their potential knockout opponents are Napoli, Atletico Madrid, Monaco, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus.

On paper, all European heavyweights with “football heritage” in the competition. But their UEFA club coefficients (the statistics used for ranking and seeding teams) tell a different story.

This is how they stand when the December draw is made:

• 4th – Atletico Madrid
• 8th – Borussia Dortmund
• 9th – Juventus
11th Manchester City
• 17th – Napoli
• 58th – Monaco

City, then, should theoretically be thrilled as they are paired with Monaco, who trail immediately behind the likes of Steaua Bucharest, PAOK, Metalist Kharkiv and Sparta Prague in the rankings.

BT Sport pundit and former City midfielder Owen Hargreaves’ immediate take on the draw is more than understandable.

“I think they’ll be cracking champagne, Manchester City. Honestly, this is a terrific draw for them,” says the two-time Champions League winner.

“I know this is a talented Monaco team, we’ve seen that, but for City I think this is as good as it could have got. They’ll be thrilled.”

That view is shared by fellow BT Sport pundit and City alumnus Steve McManaman, who famously scored in Real Madrid’s 3-0 win over Valencia in the 2000 Champions League final.

“I think it’s a great draw for Manchester City, it really is,” he says.

“And if they’ve got any [designs on] being the best in Europe and winning the Champions League, as [director of football] Txiki Begiristain says, they should be absolutely thrilled to bits.”

That’s also the general feeling in the room as Guardiola faces the media the day before the game, but he speaks in glowing terms about his upcoming opponents.

Sporting a grey club training top, he says: “As a spectator it’s so nice to see them. I’m really impressed with how good they are.

“Physically strong. The full-backs play like wingers. The wingers play like attacking midfielders. The two strikers are fighters in the box – [Radamel] Falcao and [Valère] Germain – they are killers in the box.

“Both holding midfielders, Fabinho and [Tiemoué] Bakayoko, they are intelligent and physically strong to arrive in the box. They are a complete team, the most successful team in Europe in terms of scoring goals, so it’s a tough draw.

“We’re looking forward to playing against them, to find out how is our level, so it’s just compliments because they are a really, really good team.”

This time he’s spot on with his statistics. Monaco have scored 108 goals in just 41 matches this season at an average of more than 2.6 goals per game.

It goes some way to explaining how they’ve only lost five times in all competitions, are unbeaten in 2017 and sit top of Ligue 1 – three points above big-spending Paris Saint-Germain, who are chasing their fifth straight league title and are ranked seventh in UEFA’s club coefficients.

Not bad for the 58th best team in Europe.

 

 

Sterling service

As the players make a longer than normal walk from a temporary tunnel between the Colin Bell and Family Stands, the issues around the Etihad Stadium expansion are evident ahead of kick-off.

City fans and UEFA have shared a tumultuous relationship over recent years – the booing of the Champions League anthem by some sections of the crowd has become customary – but it’s not to blame for the mixed welcome on this occasion at least.

The two teams emerge to an unusual juxtaposition of rousing support and plenty of empty seats.

Flags wave and banners are passed along both the home and away sections of the expanded South Stand.

But a combination of turnstile issues and tram faults lead to swathes of the home faithful missing the start of a match that eventually provides City’s record home European attendance.

Thankfully the two teams wait an extra few moments for the capacity crowd to stream in before lighting the spark on a night nobody present will forget.

The opening exchanges set the scene aptly as both sides show plenty of attacking intent.

Neither finds their rhythm initially, with possession regularly changing hands, and despite Monaco shooting on sight, City slowly begin to take command and dominate the ball.

Then with 26 minutes on the clock, the floodgates open.

Peeling off a left-back who would later join him at the club in Benjamin Mendy, Raheem Sterling lingers at the edge of the 18-yard box – slightly right of centre – as David Silva picks up the ball in his usual inside left pocket and drives at the Monaco back line.

Silva slides a through ball towards the onrushing Leroy Sane and Sterling immediately comes alive.

It’s in that split second that the goal is scored. Mendy is blind to the former Liverpool man’s run as he blazes past him on his outside and arrives dead centre, six yards out, waiting for the ball.

Sane, having worked Silva’s slightly misdirected pass into his path with an exquisite first touch, delivers an inch-perfect ball to his partner in crime and City lead.

The German’s celebrations are almost as jubilant as Sterling’s, with the two young prospects seemingly enjoying creating chances for each other as much as scoring them.

Guardiola, fists pumping on the touchline, also knows the importance of the opener on a night like this.

Sterling may only be 22 but he is already becoming synonymous with this particular type of goal because of the regularity, and almost inevitability, with which he is able to deliver it.

Like Thierry Henry cutting in from the left wing and arrowing the ball across the goalkeeper into the far corner of the net, or Frank Lampard ghosting into the box late on to score, Sterling has the goalscoring back-post arrival down to a tee.

Sitting in BT Sport’s studio at the Etihad Stadium, Steven Gerrard, who captained Sterling during their time together with Liverpool and England, is full of praise for the diminutive winger after his ninth goal of the campaign.

“I’ve worked with him every day and I know what he puts into his training,” he says. “I know how much he wants to learn. He goes to managers, he goes to people for advice and he is prepared to improve his game and he listens.

“He works for the team both ways - he does a hell of a shift defensively but he also breaks the line with his running.

“He’s aggressive and he’s starting to add assists and goals to his game. He’s getting to that point now where you have to start describing him in amongst the best.”

Ahead of the match one of City’s elder statesmen, Yaya Toure, had also backed Sterling, and indeed Sane, to reach the very top under the tutelage of Guardiola – a man the Ivory Coast international knows well from their time together at Barcelona.

“I think you can see, when you compare Raheem from last year to this year, I see a massive change. To be honest, yeah [that is down to Guardiola],” Toure told BT Sport’s Rio Ferdinand during their in-depth discussion.

“Because now Raheem is full of confidence, playing clearly, he’s good and always up there, always the same pace.”

For all of Gerrard and Toure’s high praise and the great form Sterling has been showing in combination with Sane and January arrival Gabriel Jesus in recent weeks, the England forward is shining amid trying circumstances.

Strangely for a player who created more chances inside the opposition box than any other in the Champions League group stages, his qualities are not universally appreciated and he was almost single-handedly blamed for the Three Lions’ failure at Euro 2016 the previous summer.

His incoming manager had given him a much-publicised vote of confidence phone call after Roy Hodgson’s side were stunned by Iceland in southern France.

Now City’s number seven is repaying that faith in spades.

 

 

Bravo to zero

As a man brought up on the principles of Johan Cruyff and indoctrinated in the traditions of La Masia, Barcelona’s famed academy, Guardiola demands a style of football from his players that is both breathtaking and uncompromising.

The 46-year-old does not believe in a ‘Plan B’.

One of the key aspects of his insistence on building up attacks is playing out from the back and to do so effectively, he needs a goalkeeper who is as comfortable with the ball at his feet as any outfield player.

At Barcelona he had Víctor Valdés and later at Bayern Munich it was Manuel Neuer.

Joe Hart has been part of the Citizens family for ten years, a central figure in the recent success the club has enjoyed, winning two Premier League titles, picking up an FA Cup winners’ medal and two League Cup trophies as well.

Despite all that, England’s number one fails to prove he has what is required from a Guardiola goalkeeper and Willy Caballero, his understudy for the previous two seasons, is preferred in the opening three league games of the campaign.

When Chilean stopper Claudio Bravo arrives a week before the summer transfer deadline, it seals Hart’s exit from the Etihad, with a season-long loan to Torino confirmed four days later.

Much is made of Bravo upon his arrival. After all, this is a man who has won back-to-back La Liga titles with Barca and captained his country to successive Copa America triumphs.

Having won eight trophies in two seasons at Camp Nou, he is seen as a ready-made fix for Guardiola’s goalkeeping revolution.

It turns out to be a false dawn.

The 33-year-old struggles from the off, gifting Manchester United a goal on his debut, and that sets the tone for a difficult opening six months in which Bravo fails to nail down a starting berth.

Such is the uncertainty around City’s number one, a journalist asks Guardiola if he has decided who will play in goal against Monaco, just over 24 hours prior to kick-off.

“No. Today or tomorrow we are going to decide,” comes the terse answer.

When facing a side that have scored in each of their last 30 games, not knowing which goalkeeper will start hardly represents ideal preparation.

Caballero is eventually given the nod - his fifth successive game between the sticks in all competitions - but again he fails to convince.

Just six minutes after the elation of Sterling’s opener, his searching pass out to the left, aiming for City’s stand-in full-back Fernandinho, is intercepted by fellow Brazilian Fabinho.

The future Liverpool man combines with Bernardo Silva - another City player in waiting – before curling a sumptuous cross to the back post, where Radamel Falcao stoops to head home a potentially vital away goal for the French side.

It’s a superb goal from Monaco’s perspective but a truly avoidable one from City’s.

“I’m sorry, it’s a goalkeeping error. On a big night like this, no mistakes,” McManaman, on co-commentary for BT Sport’s live broadcast, despairs.

“It doesn’t need to happen. It does not need to happen!”

But happen it does. City’s Achilles heel has come to the fore again.

 

 

Red mist

Insistent. Bemused. Indignant.

That’s the range of emotions Guardiola seems to experience as Sergio Aguero goes down in the area when one-on-one with Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subašić.

Having just been pegged back by Falcao’s predatory strike, City look to regain the initiative immediately through the deadly duo of Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, who, as ever, are dovetailing so effectively in attacking midfield areas.

The latter releases Aguero, who gets free of Italian centre-back Andrea Raggi and bears down on goal.

Subašić comes charging out. Aguero takes the ball left of the keeper’s attempted tackle and then goes tumbling to the ground.

Penalty! Red card!

The majority inside the ground, including Guardiola, who waves an imaginary card, wait with bated breath. They are fairly certain they know what’s coming next.

Whistle in mouth, referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz is on the scene in a flash – and promptly brandishes a yellow card to Aguero for simulation.

The Argentine, captain on the night Silva and the experienced Toure all make their case to the Spanish official but he’s not interested and waves away their protests.

All in blue are incensed. Is there the slightest touch on the ball from the very tip of Subašić’s right boot as Aguero tries to take it round him? Perhaps.

Does the sliding goalkeeper make contact with the City forward and send him sprawling? Certainly.

As Guardiola, shaking his head in disbelief, makes his feelings clear to the fourth official on the touchline, the majority of the 53,351 in attendance in east Manchester whistle in disapproval, creating a sound more often associated with games on the continent than in England.

The anger is palpable. 

Despite having plenty to digest come full-time, the second question the Citizens boss fields from journalists in his post-match press conference is about the Aguero incident.

A curt answer follows. “Next question. I want to go to Monaco,” he says.

Chuckling from those in attendance in the stadium’s press room show he’s made his opinion clear despite not technically having his say.

When later pushed on the subject again, with the journalist explaining to Guardiola that he is able to give his opinion without fear of a UEFA charge, the Spaniard is still not for moving.

“Next question please. Next question please. Next question," he snaps.

"I’m so happy with how we did, I want to talk about football. I’m not going to answer you on that. I want to be in Monaco.”

Shaking his head and tapping his fingers loudly on the table in front of him, Guardiola’s face is the picture that tells the thousand words he is clearly holding back.

 

 

Mbappé magic

Dubbed by some as ‘the new Thierry Henry’, 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé is making waves at the Stade Louis II and winning more than just admiring looks from Europe’s elite clubs.

Over the years, many players have been afforded such labels and very few live up to the hype. With Mbappé, however, things feel very different.

Comparisons between the pair are inevitable. Like Henry, the teenager has come through the Monaco academy and been converted from a winger into a striker early in his career.

Mbappé has already broken Henry’s records for the club’s youngest-ever player and youngest-ever scorer and his staggeringly precocious talent is there for all to see.

The man who gave Henry his professional breakthrough at Monaco and then moulded him into a world-class front man with the Gunners, Arsene Wenger, is better placed than most to weigh in on how the two Parisians match up.

Shortly prior to the City v Monaco epic, Wenger says: “Mbappé is not exactly Thierry Henry but it’s true that he has similar qualities and the talent is similar, the potential is similar.

“After that, has he the same level of motivation, desire and intelligence Thierry had? The next two or three years will tell us that but the first signs you see are very promising.

“He’s a guy who is electric like Thierry was. He can dribble, can go past people and he’s efficient.”

The world doesn’t have long to wait to find out the answer to Wenger’s question.

Mbappé’s almost cartoon-like burst of pace and mature movement off the ball cause the City back line – in particular centre-back pairing John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi – problems all night.

Combining perfectly with Falcao, he is able to play off the Colombian and stretch the game for the likes of Bernardo Silva and Thomas Lemar to operate in the spaces between the hosts’ midfield and defence.

Having warned City with a shot fired over the bar just moments earlier, the superstar in the making does eventually get his goal.

He leaves the static Stones in his wake, drifts in behind Otamendi and runs on to Fabinho’s straight free-kick.

After fluffing his lines from a similar position on the left-hand side of Caballero’s box, Mbappé is far more assured coming in from the Monaco right.

He lets the ball drop over his shoulder and bears down on goal.

Allowing it to bounce once, twice, three times, he balances and composes himself – quickly glancing to see where the on-rushing goalkeeper is – before smashing home into the roof of the net to hand the visitors a shock 2-1 lead five minutes before the interval.

In the process, he becomes the second youngest French scorer in Champions League history, behind only Karim Benzema.

Having watched Jesus with intrigue and excitement since his arrival in January, the Etihad Stadium is now witnessing the breakthrough of a second wonderkid forward in just a matter of weeks.

Only this time, the prodigy in question is wearing red and white rather than sky blue.

 

 

Spot of bother

Twelve yards separate master marksman Falcao and penalty-saving specialist Caballero.

The 31-year-old dusts himself down after tumbling under the challenge of Otamendi while trying to get on the end of Mendy’s inviting cross, winning a penalty for his side.

Referee Lahoz, who whistled immediately when Aguero went down in the box during the first half, seems to be taking an age to make a decision this time around.

He eventually points to the spot and cautions Otamendi. The centre-back can consider himself a little lucky not to be sent off having been adjudged to have felled Colombia’s record scorer.

City players surround the referee, with Fernandinho and Silva remonstrating to the fifth official behind the goal. Confusion reigns as to who has awarded the penalty, but it’s given nonetheless.

It’s not just on the field the resentment is clear. The Blues fans make their feelings known as they ‘serenade’ the referee with his own song. Both pivotal and borderline decisions have gone against City so far.

Remarkably, in just his 11th Champions League start, Falcao has the chance to score his eighth goal in the competition and put Monaco 3-1 up.

He stands on the spot, ball in hand, controlling his breathing as order is restored.

Having missed a penalty against Tottenham Hotspur, who Monaco beat 2-1 both home and away during the group stages, the visitors need their prolific captain to deliver.

Standing in his way is a goalkeeper who has saved five of the last seven penalties he has faced, famously producing heroics in the League Cup final shootout the previous season to deny Liverpool at Wembley. 

The forward paces back behind the ball and Caballero jitters on his line as De Bruyne clears an object from the box. The tension builds further with every second the penalty is delayed.

Falcao stutters his run-up and fires low and hard.

The Etihad erupts as Caballero makes amends for his earlier error, denying El Tigre with a save down to his left, smothering the ball at the second attempt. The pumped Argentine stopper races past a dejected Falcao to throw the ball out immediately and breathe new life into the hosts.

In truth, it’s a poor penalty - at a comfortable height and not too far from the former Malaga man’s starting position, making it a straightforward save for a goalkeeper who admits he does plenty of research when it comes to opposition takers.

Jardim later credits the miss with changing the complexion of the game. The Venezuelan-born manager is building quite a reputation for a brand of football that is not only exciting and easy on the eye, but also highly effective.

As well as beating Spurs twice this season, they also knocked Arsenal out at this stage two years ago, so the 42-year-old is well aware of what is required at this level.

“The key to the game was the missed penalty to make it 3-1 but there's 90 minutes with us. Nothing is finished,” he insists after the game.

How prophetic those last three words turn out to be.

 

 

Old dog, new tricks

Perhaps buoyed by the penalty save or spurred on by the sense of injustice over the manner in which the spot-kick is awarded, City respond.

Nipping in to intercept a short pass from Falcao, Sterling pinches the ball midway inside his own half on the right-hand side and drives on.

Powerfully surging forward, he leaves the chasing Monaco players in his wake and releases Aguero with a perfectly-weighted ball.

Without having to break stride City’s number ten takes a first-time shot from a position not too dissimilar to that of Mbappé when he netted just before the interval.

The outcome is the same. The net bulges and the tie is suddenly level again at 2-2.

It’s a horrendous mistake from Subašić rather than a piece of brilliance from the forward, but Aguero doesn't care one iota.

Like all good strikers, his first priority is to hit the target. His low fizzing shot skips along the slick surface but it should not beat an international keeper of Subašić’s quality.

It’s a technical error by the Croat, who fails to get his body behind the shot and the power from the little Argentine’s effort is enough to see the ball squirm through his hands and into the net.

The home support cheer ironically as replays of the gaffe emerge on the big screens.

Not only is it a significant moment for City and Aguero on the night, as well as the tie overall, but also for the former Atletico Madrid hitman’s long-term future at the club.

He’s undoubtedly a legend for what he’s done in his time in England and will always be remembered for that stoppage-time winner against Queens Park Rangers that saw City pip arch-rivals Manchester United to the title at the very death back in 2012.

But more than that, since his arrival in Manchester in the summer of 2011 he’s become a symbol of the club during the Sheikh Mansour era.

Along with the likes of Hart, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Toure and Silva, ‘Kun’ represents the modern Manchester City.

But like Hart and Toure, who has been marginalised since the start of the season after falling out with Guardiola, Aguero’s future is uncertain.

His new boss demands a lot, perhaps more than any other manager, of his players and insists everyone buys into his philosophy or they are moved on.

The most infamous example perhaps came during the Catalan’s time in charge at first club Barcelona.

They had spent big money on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but when the player failed to do what was asked of him, he was quickly moved on - even if it was at a significant financial loss for the club.

Surely the same could not happen with Aguero? The two big personalities have been clashing all season and rumours continue to swirl about the 28-year-old’s future, with his manager publicly criticising him and constantly asking for more.

Throw Gabriel Jesus’ emergence into the mix and things go from bad to worse.

City, and perhaps more importantly Guardiola, appear to have found a successor to Aguero’s throne in a player who is not only willing to run himself into the ground for his team, but can also score and lead the line at a top club.

The teenager sees out the previous season with Palmeiras – guiding them to their first Brazilian title since 1994 and being named Player of the Season in the process – so his arrival is put on hold until January.

Joining in a difficult period for City – in the match before his debut Guardiola suffers the heaviest defeat of his career in a 4-0 thumping away at Everton – he quickly reinvigorates the side.

He has the ball in the back of the net within seconds of coming on as an 82nd-minute substitute in a 2-2 draw with Tottenham, only to see the potential winner ruled out for offside.

He scores three goals in his first five games and strikes up a fearsome budding front three with Sterling and Sane as he wastes little time in usurping Aguero.

But just eight days before the Monaco clash, Gabriel Jesus turns his ankle in a 2-0 win at Bournemouth, a result that leaves City eight points adrift of Premier League leaders Chelsea after 25 games.

The 19-year-old is forced to spend some time on the sidelines. Cue the return of Aguero, who starts his third consecutive match on the bench at the Vitality Stadium before replacing his stricken colleague.

Despite the fortuitous equaliser against Monaco being his 19th goal of the season, it is also Aguero’s first in seven games, ending a worrying run of 522 minutes without a Champions League knockout stage goal.

It’s a vital strike for his confidence and in the context of a dizzyingly topsy-turvy tie that already appears capable of going either way.

But most significantly, it’s his application and willingness to track back and win the ball for his team against Monaco that continually has Guardiola applauding.

For a man of Aguero’s talent and predatory instincts, it can be argued that the goals will always come regardless of his endeavour levels.

Yet by adding that relentless work-rate to his armoury, it should now mean they continue to come in City blue.

 

 

"The audacity… it’s just a joke."

Just two minutes and 24 seconds after Aguero’s leveller, Monaco retake the lead with one of the greatest goals of the Champions League era.

Chasing a ball lofted forward into the channel between Bacary Sagna and Stones down City’s right, Falcao has the former Everton defender casting a shadow over him. They come shoulder to shoulder at the edge of the box and tussle for the ball.

In reality, there’s not much of a tussle at all. The former United and Chelsea front man brushes aside the young centre-back – who makes a risky last-ditch sliding tackle to try to rectify the problem inside his own box – with ease.

With Sagna and Otamendi rapidly closing in from either side and Caballero poised on the edge of his six-yard box, surely Falcao just needs to get a shot off quickly.

The composure, ingenuity and ability to execute his jaw-dropping next move is what separates the likes of Falcao from mere mortals.

He is somehow able to chip the ball over the keeper - from inside the box.

The lob wedge-style shot gives Falcao the loft he requires to get it over the jumping Caballero and despite only being about 15 yards out, he still manages to arc the ball back down to land midway up the net.

It’s simply sensational. Were it not for his United association, it’s the sort of goal even the home support would ordinarily be forced to applaud.

Ferdinand, another member of BT Sport’s panel at the Etihad, is stunned.

“The run, then he shakes a defender off and has the audacity to chip the ball from within the box over the goalkeeper, who is on his tip toes – he’s about seven foot tall when he chips him – and still dinked it over him and managed to get it down,” he says.

“John Stones has to do better there for me from a defensive point of view but you’ve got to look at the attacking play here. After missing a penalty and giving the ball away for a goal, to have the audacity – it’s just a joke.

“It’s a great goal that will be played, and played, and played.”

The goal crowns a performance that rightly shows why Falcao is one of Europe’s most feared strikers.

But it also flies in the face of his two highly unsuccessful seasons in England.

Having only scored five goals during his time with United and Chelsea, a performance like this makes his failure on these shores even more baffling.

He’s now on a run of 15 goals in his last 15 games and has netted as many goals at the Etihad Stadium in just 61 minutes as he managed in 15 games at Old Trafford.

No doubt Ferdinand is correct that any analysis of this fantastic goal must look at it primarily as a piece of attacking brilliance. But Stones’ role, of lack thereof, must also be mentioned.

The 22-year-old, who missed out on a move to Chelsea 18 months previously, is one of Guardiola’s first recruits, with the ball-playing Yorkshire man envisaged as a key cog in developing the team’s ability to play out from the back.

But like Bravo behind him, it’s been far from plain sailing for Stones. Not only are his defensive abilities coming into question; more worryingly, it’s his decision-making in possession that seems awry.

He is still in the infancy of his career, so mistakes are to be expected. Yet for one so assured with the ball at his feet, his struggles in adapting to Guardiola’s tactical demands have led to questions about what sort of manager he needs.

Would a boss who discourages the England centre-half from such extravagant risk-taking be more useful?

Stones has a point to prove.

 

 

Blue Moon rising

For all his pre-match praise of Monaco, Guardiola could surely not have envisaged a scenario in which his side would be trailing with half an hour remaining, having already conceded three away goals.

Although never overtly stated by anyone within the club, from the outside the signing of Guardiola is seen as a signal of intent by City’s owners to take them to the next level by securing the most coveted manager in the world.

In the short term, however, he is considered the final part of the puzzle if Mansour's City are to finally lift the only trophy to elude them by winning the Champions League.

That dream is suddenly crashing down around the Santpedor native.

Dominating possession but struggling to carve out any clear scoring chances, the hosts win a 71st-minute corner.

Silva trots over to take an in-swinger.

The blustery conditions are evident, the corner flag flapping in the strong wind, but City’s left-footed wizard uses it to his favour and loops the ball deep into the visitors’ box.

It sails over everyone’s heads - apart from the ever-lively Aguero.

Not to be outdone by his one-time Atletico Madrid replacement’s stunner down the other end, Aguero watches the ball travel over Stones’ head and arches his back to power home a volley as it drops perfectly on his right foot.

The Argentina forward shows superb balance to keep the ball down and this time has no help from his nemesis in the Monaco goal.

City are back on level terms at 3-3 but celebrations are short-lived as Guardiola cajoles his team and demands they go again.

It’s more a sense of relief than joy - the balance of the tie still feels firmly against them.

With their tails up, the League Cup holders push for a fourth. They don’t have to wait long.

For a team renowned for their beautiful passing football and small technical players, set-pieces are not considered one of their key strengths.

But the opposite is true tonight.

This time it’s a corner from the other flank and Silva’s right-footed counterpart De Bruyne stands over it.

The Belgian’s performances have come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks, with the chief criticism being that his goals and assists total is down season-on-season.

Focusing on the job at hand, the ex-Chelsea man lofts the ball along the six-yard box and it’s a City head that rises highest.

With two of the Citizens’ senior figures combining for the third, it’s another ‘old-timer’ who comes up with a vital flick-on this time around as Toure touches the ball towards the back post.

Caballero has already made up for his earlier error with the Falcao penalty save and now it’s Stones’ turn to taste sweet redemption as he prods home from close range to register his first ever goal in the competition.

Incredibly, it's 4-3 and City are leading again for the first time since Sterling's opener.

“What a game. What a night! It’s not good for your health, this!” shrieks McManaman.

It’s there for the taking now. City are in the ascendancy and aim to turn a first-leg win into a lead they can defend (well, perhaps - it’s a Guardiola team, after all) in Monaco.

Sane is the latest to have his say in this most memorable of games.

His assist for Sterling – a mere seven goals ago – opened the floodgates and now it’s his turn to get on the scoresheet.

After a sharp exchange of passes in midfield, Silva dinks a sumptuous ball over the Monaco back line, who suddenly appear to have forgotten how to defend in the past ten minutes.

Their starting positions are far too high and Aguero is able to ghost in behind before calmly rolling the ball to his right, where Sane is on hand to finish into the empty net, narrowly avoiding disaster as Sterling almost inadvertently blocks the ball on the goal line.

The Etihad erupts in collective euphoria. Guardiola, always such a watchable figure on the touchline, leaps up and punches the chilly Manchester night air in an instinctive display of unbridled joy.

What a night. What a turnaround. And what a second leg in prospect.

 

 

Attack, attack, attack

Independent journalist Jack Pitt-Brooke sums up an astonishing evening at the Etihad better than most.

“For nearly six years Manchester City have been waiting for a European classic here at the Etihad Stadium, a game to show them what all the fuss about the Champions League is about,” he writes.

“Well, here it was, one of the best games in any competition at any point in the last few years.

“It was the best game played here since Sergio Aguero’s 94th-minute title-decider against Queens Park Rangers nearly five years ago.”

There are several highs during that five-year period, perhaps none more so than the 3-1 comeback victory over Barcelona three months earlier in the group stages.

But considering the sheer brilliance shown on the pitch and the enormity of the fixture, Pitt-Brooke may well be correct.

Guardiola is naturally less philosophical as he takes stock of the breathless encounter, but one thing is for certain – City will not change their stance when they travel to the Stade Louis II for the return leg.

“These kind of things maybe help for this club to achieve another step,” he says.

“You have to live these type of situations – to be in trouble, to overcome that situation to become a better club and better team, and a huge compliment from me is for the players to be there.

“Don’t ever give up – never - and be there. We are still alive.”

Fighting to the end is synonymous with City as a club.

A combination of the famous Aguero moment and Paul Dickov’s 95th-minute equaliser in the 1999 Second Division play-off final against Gillingham ensures as much.

But this generation, the Guardiola vintage, need to discover it for themselves. Perhaps they have taken their first steps on this momentous night.

During Premier League teams’ Champions League dominance in the mid-2000s, British fans grew accustomed to watching defensive masterclasses – chiefly by Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool.

When Guardiola’s swashbuckling, all-conquering, majestic Barca team sweep all before them to be crowned European champions in 2009, they sow the seeds for a new lease of life for attacking football on this stage.

Born out of the Marcelo Bielsa school of tactical thought, Guardiola is the poster boy for this fresh approach to Champions League knockout ties and despite shipping three away goals, his plan for the second leg is to take the game to Monaco again.

“They will attack more and more and we will have to defend better but we will have our chances, I’m pretty sure of that,” the former Bayern boss adds.

“We are going to fly to Monaco to score goals, as many as possible. That is my target. We are not going to defend that result, especially in this situation when we know each other better.

"But we have to go there to score goals. If we don’t score a goal, we will be eliminated.”

That last sentence sums up his thinking and the tie as a whole better than any other. This matchup is about outscoring your opponent, not limiting them while trying to nick a goal.

A refreshing take? Certainly. An unwise approach? Perhaps.

Fast forward three weeks and City do score their goal.

Sane’s stock is enhanced even further as he puts the Blues on course for a place in the quarter-finals with less than 20 minutes to go.

The German's strike leaves City 2-1 down on the night following goals from Mbappe and Fabinho inside the opening half an hour but, crucially, 6-5 up on aggregate.

Ultimately, though, it is not enough. 

For all his pre-match faith in his side's firepower, Guardiola had seemingly not forseen them shipping another three goals with the type of insipid defensive display that is becoming worryingly commonplace.

Tiemoue Bakayoko’s decisive header 13 minutes from time sees Monaco draw level at 6-6, thereby edging the contest and progresing on away goals.

Monaco go on to reach the semi-finals in a hugely memorable season for Jardim’s men.

But for Guardiola, the two remarkable games provide a neat microcosm of the early stages of his City revolution: attacking prowess undermined by defensive fallibility.

For the blue half of Manchester, the search for the ultimate prize continues.

Champions League Gold

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