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It was neither Rodri’s most significant Champions League goal of 2023 nor his most important strike of the season. And yet, as Manchester City began their defence of their continental crown, perhaps it was fitting that it was capped by a finish from the man who delivered the strike that secured their holy grail.
The scourge of Internazionale in Istanbul, Rodri finished off Red Star Belgrade in Manchester. He did so in style, too, exchanging passers with Phil Foden, embarking on a solo run and placing a shot in. It was an indication that the defensive midfielder, the man who has always amassed passes, has now started to trade in goals as well: four in nine games, going back to the Champions League final.
If some – April’s opener against Bayern Munich, the decider against Inter, the recent winner at Sheffield United – are signs of stature, of the capacity to seize the initiative, there is also evidence of a more attacking bent. If Rodri is getting forward more, it may be because he is finding his duties at the base of the midfield too easy. Or perhaps because, without Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan, he recognises the need to compensate for the absence of two talismanic figures and has the ability to do so.
Whichever, the footballer named the Champions League’s player of the season last year helped avert a major shock at the start of this campaign’s competition. Zvezda had half-time to savour a lead at the Etihad Stadium, to contemplate the thought that, five years to the day since City lost to Lyon, they could end a long unbeaten home run in Europe. Perhaps predictably, they did not and it may prove to be a painful double header for the Glazers involving the Manchester clubs in the Champions League.
While the American family’s stewardship of Manchester United could come in for heavier criticism should they lose to Bayern, their namesake, an Israeli goalkeeper, contrived to mar a wonderful act of defiance with a hideous error. When City took the lead, it was from a Julian Alvarez free kick that Omri Glazer should have punched clear; instead, he misjudged it and diverted it into the back of the net.
It was a cruel way of condemning Zvezda to defeat; not least because goalkeepers are rarely busier. City accumulated 37 shots but nevertheless trailed to underdogs. It amounted to an Alvarez rescue job as the Argentinian scored twice while, for the second time in four days, Erling Haaland compiled a host of misses.
It was, in part, because Glazer was outstanding, save for one aberration. He clawed away a Nathan Ake header and made a point-blank block from Foden. When he spilled a long-range effort from Alvarez, he recovered to stop Haaland’s follow-up with his head. He thwarted the Norwegian again, a header from a few yards drawing the pick of the bunch of his saves. He denied Jeremy Doku, just as he had saved from Rodri at the start.
Briefly, it threatened to provide the sort of upset that City had appeared immune too. City had 22 shots before the break, Zvezda one. The visitors’ lone effort counted for more, even though Osman Bukari was initially ruled offside when he sprinted through to beat Ederson. Replays showed it was a legitimate goal.
But even as Haaland, who had headed Foden’s first-half cross against the bar, failed to show such a clinical touch, he still supplied an equaliser 80 seconds after the interval. The Norwegian provided a wonderful reverse ball, allowing Alvarez to scoot pass Glazer and roll a shot into the net. The Argentinian struck again 13 minutes later – unluckily for the goalkeeper – and Rodri ensured there was no way back for Zvezda.
It meant the eventual scoreline felt more predictable than the events themselves. In time, that may be forgotten, this dismissed as a typical result. City have a tendency to make group stages seem processions; they have topped their pool in each of the last six seasons, aided by a formidable home record which now extends to 25 wins in 27 European ties. This was nevertheless unexpectedly difficult for a club with a 100 per cent record at the Etihad in all competitions in 2023.
But finally conquering Europe prompts the question of what comes next. The fans still booed the competition’s anthem – old habits die hard – but there was a new addition to the songbook; “Champions of Europe, we know what we are”. Mike Summerbee, part of the first City team to try and claim that title, brought out the trophy that had long eluded them.
As Pep Guardiola had noted, there is a sizeable group of one-time winners; their number includes Red Star Belgrade, as Zvezda were then known, and it is a safe assumption the Serbian club will be stuck on one for quite some time to come. And yet if the shot count suggested they were cannon fodder, their resilience, allied with Bukari’s sharpness on the break, offered another impression. They fared better at the Etihad than Real Madrid or Bayern had last season but a City win with a Rodri goal is an increasingly familiar outcome.