Pep Guardiola remained impervious. “I was sleeping like a baby, I didn’t hear a thing,” reported City’s manager before watching his defence come as near as any team’s to tranquillising Erling Haaland.
Admittedly the £150m-rated Norwegian prodigy had his moments but Rúben Dias – channelling his inner Vincent Kompany – and friends held reasonably firm. If they did not exactly reduce Haaland’s price tag, City’s backline succeeded in extending his current goal drought to an almost unprecedented seven games.
The reward for executing that nullification exercise to perfection is a place in the final four for the first time under Guardiola. Granted the not inconsiderable challenge of a semi-final against Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and the rest of Mauricio Pochettino’s PSG galacticos represents a considerable hazard along the road to next month’s final in Istanbul, but at least the Ataturk Stadium is now faintly visible on the horizon.
At the end of a second half in which Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez, Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gündogan all excelled, City’s manager had moved a step closer to winning his first Champions League in 10 years. They also remain on course for a quadruple trophy haul this season.
Leaving nothing to chance, Guardiola – whose decision to start Raheem Sterling on the bench was vindicated – had arranged for his side’s dressing room to be decorated with banners proclaiming “Together” and “We fight ’til the end” along with photographs of the team celebrating past victories.
Initially though these psychological props seemed to exert limited value. City started a little tentatively and were behind after 17 minutes. Haaland, who last weekend clocked up a record Bundesliga sprint time of 22.5mph, used his formidable physique to all too easily shrug off an apparently shaken John Stones as he held up the ball adroitly before Jude Bellingham’s amalgam of exquisite touch and seamless control sent it arcing towards the top corner.
Manchester City’s llkay Gündogan was named man of the match against Borussia Dortmund, his former club. Photograph: Joosep Martinson/Uefa/Getty Images
Seconds after the 17-year-old England international had shifted the ball from his left to right foot, the Germans were suddenly on course to progress through away goals.
What a shame the components of the Westfalenstadion’s famous Yellow Wall were not present to share Bellingham’s joy. Even after a year without fans, the sight of matches being played in front of eerily empty stands retains its capacity to depress.
City’s response to that goal was impressive though, with Gündogan coming to the fore and Guardiola’s side suddenly dominating possession as they swarmed all over their hosts. Yet even though De Bruyne, deployed as a false nine, hit the bar and Bellingham cleared Mahrez’s shot off the line in the wake of Foden performing acrobatic wonders to pluck the ball from thin air, Dortmund’s supremely efficient back four briefly elevated the art of defensive organisation to new heights.
It meant Guardiola’s players created precious little from open play and with De Bruyne’s set-piece delivery radar turning uncharacteristically wonky for a while, City’s manager had reason to fear the worst.
Or at least he did until Emre Can headed a cross on to his left arm and Mahrez’s left-footed penalty proved too powerful for Marwin Hitz to resist, restored the aggregate lead.
By the time a short corner routine had prefaced Foden’s low, angled shot flying in off Hitz’s hands and the near post, the narrative had not so much changed as been torn to shreds. As Hitz, who knew he should have saved it, berated himself, Foden raced to embrace Guardiola in what would swiftly become the most emotional of group hugs. That “Together” banner in the away locker room was evidently much more than an empty slogan.
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When City’s manager finally emerged from the scrum, his high-wattage smile looked strong enough to power the factories of North-Rhine Westphalia for several weeks. Guardiola has said he will regard himself as “a failure” if he does not deliver the Champions League trophy to the Etihad Stadium and the relief was palpable as the final whistle blew and he commiserated with Dortmund’s interim manager Edwin Terzic.
Before kick-off Terzic reflected that whoever won the tie would need to find “the balance between courage and patience.”
Happily for Guardiola, Gündogan and company eventually discovered precisely how to locate that winning equilibrium.