Manchester City’s Julian Alvarez snuffed out the threat of an outrageous smash-and-grab as the Champions League holders came from behind with a second-half onslaught to dispatch Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday night. The Argentinian World Cup winner scored twice after Osman Bukari had struck just before half-time for the Serbs.
Rodri – the hero of the final in Istanbul last June – added a third as the defending champions launched their defence in the expected manner. Only once in the last 28 seasons have the holders lost their opening group game.
It was five years ago to the day that City last lost at the Etihad in Europe and truth be told it would have been a travesty of justice if that fate had befallen them on Tuesday night. They dominated utterly. So game one of the 13 matches they need to navigate to retain the trophy is in the can.
There will be a lot tougher assignments to come. Pep Guardiola’s drew a Champions League scene-setting sketch to his squad of a mountain with City back at the bottom of it but this was a gentle first step. Red Star, unbeaten in taking the domestic title last season, have lost two of their last three Super Liga games this season under new manager Barak Bakhar.
In the circumstances the holders away was quite a start in Group G. Faced with wave after wave of City attacks in the first half, they had to rely on the goalkeeping of Omri Glazer, some desperate last-ditch defensive blocks and some wasteful finishing to keep their heads above water.
But somehow they did – and grabbed themselves an unlikely 1-0 lead into the bargain. Totally against the run of play, Red Star opened the scoring through Bukari in the 45th minute.
The Ghanaian striker was initially flagged for offside but a VAR check ruled that he had timed his run perfectly. It was the visitors’ first shot of the game after 22 with no joy from City. The closest the home side came in the first half was a 25th minute header from Erling Haaland which hit the bar from Phil Foden’s cross.
If the unmarked Norwegian should have done better then Foden was also culpable in the 41st minute with a close-range header which Glazer kept out. However the Red Star keeper was finally beaten two minutes after the restart. A lovely interchange between Alvarez and Haaland opened up the defence and the Argentinian equalised from the tightest of angles.
Kyle Walker thought he had given City the lead in the 51st minute only for the goal to be ruled out for offside by the assistant referee. Haaland, following in Alvarez’s shot, should really have scored when Glazer spilled the ball into his path.
Instead it was Alvarez who put City up on the hour after a howler from the Red Star goalkeeper who made a complete dog’s dinner of punching his angled free-kick away and allowed it to float into his net. A Glazer the toast of Manchester? Who would have thought it?
With the wind in their sails City looked odds-on to add to their tally. Haaland had a far-post header saved and Belgian flyer Jeremy Doku, who had replaced Bernardo Silva in the 44th minute, was also denied by Glazer.
But the third goal finally came when the excellent Rodri curled a delightful finish beyond the Red Star keeper in the 73rd minute to make the game safe. City passed 100 attacks as the game drew to its ultimately satisfactory conclusion – statistical confirmation of their total superiority.