If Manchester City get beaten in a Champions League dead rubber and nobody is there to see it, did it really happen? Certainly that will be the only crumb of comfort for Pep Guardiola as he debriefs this silent shambles in which his half-interested side were serially cut open, Kyle Walker managed to get himself suspended for the last 16 and the only flicker of experimentation was a pointless three minutes given to Cole Palmer at the end.
Normally City are peerless when there is nothing to play for. How do you think they won all those League Cups? But here they seemed to get sucked into a perfect vortex of disinterest: some combination of the situation and the empty stadium and the bitter cold and the fact that Leipzig still needed a result to qualify for the Europa League.
Indeed the only real note of tension in the evening was how the home side would react to the sacking of coach Jesse Marsch at the weekend. The whole Leipzig project appears to be at something of a crossroads at the minute, with the club 11th in the Bundesliga and in retreat for pretty much the first time in its history. But in the sublime Dominik Szoboszlai, as well as their spirited defensive resistance in the second half, there remains plenty of promise here to build on.
With Manchester City already guaranteed top spot in the group, a certain churn and rotation was inevitable. Joao Cancelo, Bernardo Silva, Ederson and Rodri were all rested. And yet the team Guardiola named was still unnervingly strong, an XI of established full internationals with Kevin De Bruyne returning in midfield and Jack Grealish up front with Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez either side of him.
The message to City’s impressive band of youngsters was clear enough. This is still the Champions League. You earn this. No freebies, and no fans either. The RB Arena was closed to the public in light of Germany’s alarming rise in Covid cases, and though City
established themselves as the kings of pandemic football last season they began a little sleepily here.
Grealish and De Bruyne struggled to get in the game. Konrad Laimer had the first chance after Ilkay Gundogan was caught in possession. Kyle Walker was doing a good job of snuffing out counterattacks, but Leipzig’s movement was crisp and sharp, and on 23 minutes they found a way through.
It was an aimless-looking goal-kick from Peter Gulacsi, but City were slow on the second ball and in a flash Laimer had set Szobszlai clear with a delightful swerving through-pass. Szoboszlai has been described as Hungary’s most talented footballer since Ferenc Puskas, although the playmaker is yet to really set the Bundesliga aflame since his move in January. Here, though, his talent was in full evidence: the clever run, the turn of pace, the quick feet to take the ball around Zack Steffen and finish into an empty net.
A blueprint had been set. Leipzig continued to look for the quick ball in behind the defence, and though City began to string some moves together as the half went on, they still looked a little brittle in defensive transition. Emil Forsberg could have made it 2-0 within seconds of the restart. Andre Silva certainly should seven minutes before half-time, the £19m Portuguese striker heading straight at Steffen from five yards.
Raheem Sterling for Foden was the obvious change at the break. Grealish switched to the left, Gundogan pushed up, De Bruyne drifted and roamed in search of the ball, but even if City enjoyed more possession and territory in the second half there was still precious little intensity to go with it.
With 20 minutes left, John Stones was drawn towards the ball, Forsberg burst clear and Silva finished with men queueing up to shoot. That was probably the moment when Guardiola realised he should probably have spent his Tuesday evening curled up with a box set. Even the sight of Mahrez heading in Oleksandr Zinchenko’s cross from close range failed to move him.
As the game leaked away the futility of the whole enterprise seemed to dawn on City all at once. With eight minutes left Walker was shown a red card for a childish hack on Szoboszlai, probably sealed with a firm shove as the pair angrily squared up.
And yet City might yet have nicked a point through Grealish and De Bruyne, who both saw shots drift agonisingly wide. It was a reminder, if needed, that even when they are quite bad, City are never really that bad. This was a nightmarish evening, but not one they you feel will leave any real scars. Besides, if you are going to implode in calamity, you may as well do it in a game like this.