As their £100m signing announced himself on the rarefied level of the Champions League, Manchester City demonstrated why many expect them to recover from the disappointment of losing last season’s final and go one step further. Jack Grealish’s brilliant individual goal on his European debut was the pick of the nine scored at the Etihad, as Pep Guardiola’s side ran out 6-3 winners over RB Leipzig.
Christopher Nkunku hit a hat-trick for the Bundesliga visitors but it was the type of night where even that was a mere sidenote. Each of Nkunku’s goals pulled Leipzig back to within one goal. Each of them was quickly followed by City going up the other end and restoring their advantage.
Nathan Ake, Riyad Mahrez, Joao Cancelo and Gabriel Jesus also wrote their names on the scoresheet, while Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden made returns from injury, and Nordi Mukiele and Angelino suffered the ignominies of an own goal and red card respectively. The night will be remembered for Grealish, though, and as a statement of intent from City against a side that were semi-finalists in this competition only two seasons ago.
It took just over a quarter of an hour for the breakthrough to arrive through an unlikely source. Ake struggled for form and fitness during his first year in Manchester but this emphatic header, struck against the underside of the crossbar, could be the turning point his Etihad career requires. It arrived just as fitness concerns over both John Stones and Aymeric Laporte have opened up a potential starting spot.
It was Ake’s first Champions League goal and Grealish’s first Champions League assist. The £100m signing was indulging in his continental bow and was the best player on the pitch in the first half, though there is only one master around these parts. De Bruyne reminded the Etihad of that fact with a deft turn away from both Tyler Adams and Konrad Laimer out on the right, before sending in a devilish low cross.
Nordi Mukiele thought he had the situation under control, even with Grealish breathing down his neck at the far post. The Leipzig full-back began to position himself to head the ball behind for a corner but was so bewildered by the quality of De Bruyne’s cross, his body shape was all over the place. Mukiele ended up converting into his own net with a controlled, cushioned header. You will do well to see a finer Champions League own goal this season.
City were largely in control but Guardiola had spotted one area in need of improvement. Leipzig were enjoying plenty of room down City’s right – mostly through their old boy Angelino – and Mahrez’s failure to track back inspired several outbursts from the touchline. Leipzig eventually made City pay for their sloppiness, while Mukiele made amends for his mistake, heading Emil Forsberg’s dink back across goal for Nkunku to nod in.
Yet just as Leipzig secured a foothold in the game, City hit back from the penalty spot. Lukas Klostermann was penalised for handball, having turned his back and blocked Ferran Torres’ header at point blank while raising his arm. It felt harsh, the type of incident that may be overlooked in the Premier League this season, but City benefitted from the stricter continental interpretation. Mahrez stepped up and dispatched the penalty.
Yet still, City’s right-hand side struggled. At the start of the second half, De Bruyne’s collision with referee Serdar Gozubuyuk had allowed Laimer to drive through midfield unopposed. Out on Leipzig’s left, Dani Olmo then had the time and space to clip a ball to the near post. Nkunku escaped Ruben Dias’ attention to restore the single goal margin. Game on, once again. Yet of the evening’s nine goals, Grealish was about to score the best.
It was one that he has spent many of his 26 years on this earth envisaging. Taking the ball up in space wide on the left, he drove infield on his right foot, exposing some amateurish Leipzig defending in the process, then wrapped his effort around Peter Gulacsi’s exasperated dive. It was some way to announce yourself at this level. A kiss and wave to the delighted Etihad followed in celebration.
Guardiola was the only one not wearing a smile. The City manager used Grealish’s celebration as an opportunity to berate Mahrez and perhaps it was finally working: Leipzig’s third goal came down City’s right. Again, it was Nkunku, this time neatly slotting a finish across Ederson after some intricate Leipzig play. Like with his first and second though, any notion of this game suddenly becoming competitive was swiftly extinguished.
Merely a minute later, Cancelo’s 25-yard drive clocked up City’s fifth. A few minutes after that, Cancelo was caught by Angelino and the former City left-back was shown his second yellow card of the evening to reduce Leipzig to 10 men. But even with that numerical advantage, City limited themselves to just one more during the final quarter of an hour. Jesus joined in, lifting a finish into the roof of the net from close range after a blocked shot left Gulacsi stranded.