Jon Mackenzie – Etihad Stadium
In a game that was of no consequence, Pep Guardiola’s contradictions were brought very much to the fore: Gabriel Jesus’s early goal, cancelled out minutes later by Mohammed Elyounoussi proving to be little more than a consolation when Michael Lang – the scourge of Manchester – scored a winner deep into the second half.
Manchester City 1-2 FC Basel (1-1 HT)
Goals: 1-0 (Gabriel Jesus, 8 mins), 1-1 (Mohammed Elyounoussi, 14 mins), 1-2 (Michael Lang, 72 mins)
Football, it appears, is full of contradictions. In a week in which we learned that the FA considers yellow ribbons in support of political prisoners to be on a par with Robert Mugabe and the swastika, we also learned another contradiction: Champions League Round of 16 fixtures appear to be easier for away teams than home teams.
After a deconstruction job in Porto that would have made even the great Jacques Derrida feel queazy, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool could only manage a no-score draw on Thursday at Anfield. Not to be outdone, Pep Guardiola – resplendent in aforementioned yellow ribbon – saw his side taken for more a ride than they had been offered in Switzerland.
Of course, the 4-0 buffer with all of the goals being of the away variety certainly helped. So too did the shuffling of the pack by the Catalan as he did his best to rest his key players before a heavy end-of-season schedule. The midfield area, in particular, had gone through extensive renovations with both David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne being rested and Yaya Toure taking up the place of the injured Fernandinho. This gave space for 17-year-old Phil Foden to become the youngest player to be involved in the Champions League knockouts in the competition’s history.
Back and forth
This smorgasbord line-up had little impact on Manchester City in the early stages and, when Gabriel Jesus poked home Bernardo Silva’s flashed pass across the six-yard box, it seemed as if the game could become something of a procession. Within ten minutes, though, the scores were level: Mohammed Elyounoussi latching onto Blas Riveros’s ball into the box and finding himself curiously unmarked. He gladly hammered the ball past a helpless Claudio Bravo in the Manchester City goal. It was the first shot the much-maligned keeper had to face.
From this point on, the game became a very different affair: a more tetchy affair where both sides caused problems but never quite of the magnitude that might have caused the opposition to worry. When Michael Lang put a rising ball over Bravo in the 72nd minute, it looked, to all intents and purposes, that it could be enough and so it proved to be. Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva both looked dangerous in the wide areas but, with FC Basel’s back line retreating deeper and deeper into their half, neither maestro could real command much of a mastery on the game.
Contradictions aplenty, then. Guardiola, the aesthetician who cares about the plight of the underdog but is happy to act as a spokesperson for a more-than-problematic regime. Manchester City, flying high and variously described as being the ‘best team in Premier League history’, falling once again to weaker opponents in Champions League dead rubber fixtures.
In a game almost entirely devoid of narrative, the only thing approaching a point of interest in this fixture was the inclusion of Claudio Bravo in the starting lineup.Having had his weaknesses throughout last season well-documented, the Chilean has seen himself usurped by a young pretender from the same continent. Ederson, it is said, could play as an outfield player, such is his proficiency with his feet.
Not to be outdone, Bravo took it upon himself to show off his own talents: rushing out to onrushing balls with wild abandon, at one point the goalkeeper took on not one but two Basel players, dinking the ball over their heads to the great delight of the crowd. This, but for the goal, was the closest that the game came to being entertaining.
That is, unless you are an FC Basel fan. The Swiss contingent bounced. In unison. All night. Even when they conceded. Imagine the scenes, then, when they equalised and then took the lead. Flares were lit. Songs were sung. We were all reminded of the momentous nature of European football – even European football with an inevitability about it.
So bravo Bravo! And bravo the Basel fans. It’s onwards and upwards from here for Manchester City with their place in the quarterfinals of the Champions League assured.