Sergio Agüero helps Manchester City pull it out of the fire against Monaco
This article titled “Sergio Agüero helps Manchester City pull it out of the fire against Monaco” was written by Daniel Taylor at the Etihad Stadium, for The Guardian on Tuesday 21st February 2017 22.03 UTC
Where does one even start with a match of this nature? It was a thrilling night, full of mistakes, drama and controversy and, ultimately, a remarkable feat of escapology for Manchester City. The second half was bedlam and, when everything was done, Pep Guardiola sat back in a chair and blew out his cheeks. “A lot of things happened,” he said, with notable understatement, trying to make sense of the highest-scoring first-leg encounter there has been in any Champions League knockout tie.
It was not easy for City’s manager because, on the hour, his team had been on their knees. Radamel Falcao had just scored one of the outstanding goals of his career and City, 3-2 down, were being largely outplayed by a Monaco team that has now scored 111 goals this season and, for long spells, displayed all the ingredients that are necessary to make a serious tilt at winning this competition.
What followed was extraordinary, including three goals in a 12-minute blitz and another reminder why City’s crowd sing about the way their team “fight to the end”. They certainly did that and amid the madness there was also a smouldering sense of injustice about the moment, at 1-1, when Sergio Agüero should have been awarded a penalty only to receive a yellow card for alleged diving. Guardiola would not even discuss it afterwards, insisting he did not want a ban from Uefa.
Yet there was no doubt, too, that City must be relieved their night was not considerably worse. Monaco, barring their late collapse, had been hugely impressive and it would be reckless to think they are incapable of producing another dramatic twist in the second leg. “If one team can score a thousand million goals, it’s Monaco,” Guardiola noted.
Leonardo Jardim’s team played with the confidence that comes from leading Ligue 1 and Falcao would have had a hat-trick if he had been able to put away a penalty, four minutes into the second half, to make it 3-1. It was a weak effort, completely out of keeping with the rest of his performance, and those were the moments when City’s luck was in. Nine minutes later the goalkeeper, Danijel Subasic, made a dreadful mistake after an innocuous-looking shot from Agüero and, suddenly, the game had an entirely different complexion.
Monaco had already beaten Spurs, home and away, in the group stages and Falcao clearly deserves better than to be remembered for his ordeals at Manchester United and Chelsea. His diving header for Monaco’s first goal was his 23rd goal of the season and the 24th, chipping the ball over Willy Caballero with an exquisite touch, made it feel even more perplexing that such a gifted player could manage only five goals during two years in England.
For long spells it was startling to see how vulnerable City were at the back and their tendency to make life unnecessarily difficult for themselves. Caballero’s mistake for Monaco’s first goal, with a wretched kick from his penalty area, was not even the first time City’s accident-prone goalkeeper had messed up. Caballero’s early attempt to find Fernandinho, kicking the ball straight out for a throw-in, summed up City’s nervousness in the opening exchanges. Bernardo Silva’s nutmeg on Yaya Touré was another warning and all over the pitch Les Monégasques seemed to have the better of their opponents. Kylian Mbappé, an 18-year-old with prodigious talent, could be seen giving Nicolás Otamendi a chasing. Benjamin Mendy, outstanding on Monaco’s left, beat Kevin De Bruyne once and then went back to do the same again. What a formidable side Monaco looked before everything unravelled for them.
A lesser team might have lost their way once Leroy Sané had eluded a couple of opponents and slipped the ball across the six-yard area for Raheem Sterling to open the scoring after 26 minutes. Instead Monaco immediately set about turning the game on its head. Falcao’s first goal, set up by Fabinho’s right-wing cross, was a personal ordeal for Caballero and, though City were entitled to be aggrieved about the Agüero incident, it could also be argued Sterling had strayed marginally offside for his goal. Likewise Otamendi ought to have been shown a red card, rather than a yellow, for scything down Falcao for Monaco’s penalty.
On that occasion City’s protests had no real foundation, other than the fact it seemed to take an age before the Spanish referee, Antonio Mateu Lahoz, pointed to the penalty spot. Falcao took even longer preparing his shot and Caballero’s save made amends for his first-half performance.
Guardiola was clearly incensed about Lahoz deciding Agüero had been trying to con him to win a 34th-minute penalty. Agüero had been running clear before Subasic came out and caught him with his feet. Agüero was shown a yellow card when most people inside the stadium felt Subasic was about to be sent off and five minutes later Fabinho caught out City with a quickly taken free-kick. Mbappé hared away and scored with an emphatic shot.
Guardiola declared afterwards that his side would need to score in the return leg to go through – which, put another way, insinuates he does not believe they can keep a clean sheet or even restrict Monaco to one goal.
Yet their opponents also showed a fragility in defence. Agüero’s second goal came from a badly marked corner and the same applied when City took a 4-3 lead, Touré flicking the ball on and John Stones applying the final, decisive touch from close range.
For the first time in the match Monaco had lost their composure. Agüero, looking more like the player of old, slipped in Sané to roll in the eighth goal of the night and heaven knows how the aggregate score might finish at Stade Louis II on 15 March.
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