Here are five talking points, as ten-man Manchester City recovered from 2-1 down to snatch a last-gasp 3-2 win and valuable advantage over an unpredictable Schalke side in Gelsenkirchen.
Raheem Sterling‘s last-gasp winner ensured ten-man Manchester City earned a slender advantage over a tricky Schalke side during a frantic Champions League last-16 first leg tie in Gelsenkirchen.
Leroy Sane, on his return to his boyhood club, came off the bench to score a fantastic free-kick strike from some distance – after former Tottenham midfielder Nabil Bentaleb converted two penalties for the hosts in the first-half. Sergio Aguero continued his excellent goalscoring form with a routine finish after Schalke’s defensive mishap: he has now scored in seven consecutive away games.
The use of VAR overshadowed the encounter after overturning the official’s decision for the first spot-kick, as Nicolas Otamendi was adjudged to have handled Daniel Caligiuri’s goalbound effort.
The defender was sent off midway through the second-half, but it only added fuel to City’s fire as they breached the Royal Blues twice in quick succession, recovering from 2-1 down to ultimately prevail. With all of that in mind, here’s a look at five talking points from City’s 3-2 win:
#5 Bentaleb and McKennie impress despite draining defeat
The best word to describe it is draining. Having worked tirelessly over the 90 minutes, McKennie nursing a groin injury and Bentaleb tiring but powering through nonetheless, Schalke were ultimately made to pay for poor pieces of defending in ruthless fashion.
Schalke, who finished second in last season’s Bundesliga, currently find themselves in 14th after a poor run of results to start the campaign and inconsistency has defined their year. Although the defeat itself will be raw and tough to take, there were two main positives: the aforementioned midfield duo.
Bentaleb showed nerves of steel, after patiently waiting for minutes on each, to convert both spot-kicks in the first-half. He’s now netted all 14 taken in his professional career to date, which is a commendable statistic, to say the least.
McKennie, four years his junior, has continued to impress with his energy, intelligence and guile at the heart of the Schalke midfield. His versatility and eagerness to learn more allows him to be deployed in a variety of positions – like the right-sided midfield role he adopted on this occasion.
Tenacious in the tackle and composed out of possession, his passing was regularly risky and inaccurate but he still delivered an admirable display just like the former Tottenham man alongside him.
McKennie’s match stats: A game-high 10 aerial duels won, three tackles, and one key pass.
Bentaleb’s stats: Two penalty goals, two tackles and interceptions, three completed dribbles, clearances and one blocked shot, no fouls committed.
So with that in mind, it’s refreshing to see they rose to the challenge posed by City in a game where the hosts needed patience and could’ve earned more than two goals – even if the match overview stats don’t suggest that.
#4 De Bruyne gradually improving
It’s clear Kevin de Bruyne has been gradually improving and returning to 100% match sharpness after a troublesome season plagued by injuries. The Belgian is City’s creator-in-chief – alongside David Silva – and was the Citizens’ best player last season. So missing someone of his importance was always going to have an adverse effect on their creativity, even with their strength in attacking depth.
This performance was precisely the type which suggests he’s getting back to his best. Under Pep Guardiola’s guidance in recent seasons, the 27-year-old has done more from deeper roles to create chances for his teammates and does so in a subtle way which is often overlooked if you’re not actively looking out for his individual displays.
On this occasion, the plaudits will go to his teammates – namely Aguero, Sane and Sterling – as they were the goalscorers in a must-win match. But they couldn’t have done it without his cutting-edge quality and although he’s not at 100%, he’s getting closer.
A game-high five key passes completed, 93 touches (joint-high with Fernandinho), one tackle, block, clearance and two interceptions recorded before being replaced late on for Oleksandr Zinchenko. Not bad.
#3 Schalke’s defensive approach fails… twice!
It was clear in the early exchanges that Schalke had set up specifically to defend in numbers against a City side who have scored goals with devastating ease this season. Domenico Tedesco’s tactical decision to play three central defenders in a 3-4-1-1 formation – which forms a 5-4-1 out of possession, might have made sense on paper.
On the pitch though, this strategy only invited pressure on the hosts as Pep’s 4-3-3 and Fernandinho (originally deployed at centre-back) moving further forward, meant they were regularly overwhelmed in the centre. This forced plenty of the defensive workload and hard running off-the-ball on the aforementioned Bentaleb and McKennie in particular, who had to regularly regain possession and retain it, which is easier said than done.
Aguero’s goal and the manner in which they conceded was quite frankly embarrassing, as a string of tame loose passes invited City forward to score and they netted one of the easiest goals they’ll score this season.
But after Bentaleb’s double from the spot, you’d have thought they would be more resolute at the back right? In fairness, they were at times but crucially not when it mattered most as time wore on in an eventful second-half.
Matija Nastasic and Caligiuri made some important defensive interventions when called upon, but the same could not be said for the rest of their backline. Jeffrey Bruma and Salif Sane were shaky throughout and didn’t exude confidence upon goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann – while they did their best to contain with 34% possession. The fact they didn’t record a shot on target besides the two goals speaks volumes for their level of success.
#2 VAR drama again at the forefront – good or bad?
VAR, or no VAR? That was the overwhelming question in this encounter and played a big role as the referee deliberated for far too long before making his decision – penalising Otamendi for a handball while reviewing the hosts’ protests that Mark Uth was fouled in an aerial duel with Aymeric Laporte just seconds before Aguero’s goal went in.
He struggled to contain the players on both sides and while the VAR monitor pitchside wasn’t working, it only worsened things while adding to the tension inside the stadium.
Handball or no handball? Otamendi’s intention, body position and the time needed to react quickly enough were all taken into account – but even after full-time, the decision being overturned was still a hot talking point for the experts and supporters to debate.
Perhaps harsh, replays showed his hand wasn’t actually in a natural position and given the goalbound nature of the shot, it was a fair decision to make – even if unintentional, which only Otamendi himself will know.
As for the second spot-kick, this one was more clear-cut but still dubious from City’s perspective. Fernandinho was adjudged to have held back defender Sane as an inswinging free-kick was being taken and replays showed the same. Arguably soft, the experienced Brazilian should have known better than to put his hands on an opponent. Not least in the box from one of their few dangerous opportunities.
#1 Sane and Sterling to City’s rescue
This was always going to be an emotional return for Leroy Sane. After all, he spent eight years at Schalke during his academy years and made his senior breakthrough for S04 – so regardless of the result, he’d receive a warm reception from the home faithful.
Among the substitutes’ bench on this occasion, he made his introduction after 77 minutes replacing Aguero. It was somewhat of a surprising alteration as it wasn’t like-for-like, though it didn’t take long for the 23-year-old to make his mark against his former club.
Sterling was upended by midfielder Suat Serdar and Sane stepped up to take the free-kick, one from a considerable distance, around 30 yards out in the 84th minute.
Almost identical to his excellent effort against Hoffenheim in the group stages earlier this term, he struck powerfully with the right power and dip on his left-foot before watching it fly into the top corner. Despite Fahrmann’s best efforts, he was helpless to stop his compatriot’s superb strike.
Sterling, who shone in stages and was constantly a threat down the left-hand side, turned matchwinner in the 90th minute after Ederson’s long pass set him through. He still had to work to do: staying onside before out-muscling Bastian Oczipka and racing away to slot beyond an onrushing Fahrmann, who seemingly froze as the Englishman made no mistake to tap into the bottom corner.
The pair have struck up quite a fearsome partnership in recent months and in another game where City had to dig deep, Sane and Sterling stepped up once again.
Stats’ source: WhoScored