The first leg of the Champions League quarter-final between Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund featured three prodigiously talented young footballers. Phil Foden scored, Jude Bellingham did also but saw it wrongly struck off, and Erling Haaland assisted the equaliser with a cute flick.
The catwalk was the Etihad Stadium pitch and the talented youngsters were strutting their stuff. There was even another supremely talented prodigy, Jadon Sancho, who could have turned this trio into a quartet had he not been absent through injury.
In the end it was City who took a slender advantage from the first leg but Dortmund have an away goal; it is still all to play for. However, the occasion was noticeable because there were three stand-out break-out stars of European football vying for the spotlight on the pitch.
Foden leaves his mark
It is only right to start with Foden: the Pride of Stockport. It was his late goal that ensured Pep Guardiola’s side managed to win this game and the way the City midfielder took his goal was lovely to watch. It came following a classic piece of swift one-touch City play, Kevin De Bruyne passed onto Foden and with a neat touch and an equally well-taken finish, he had finished off the most eye-catching moment of the match.
Foden’s work ethic is second to none. For the 90 minutes against Dortmund he was industrious as well as intuitive and inventive. The 20-year-old harries defenders, never giving them time to think when they are on the ball. He presses intelligently but also knows when to sit off and move back into a more defensive setting.
What makes Foden truly special, though, is his ability when in possession. With the ball at his feet, he simply glides around the pitch. No matter how close defenders get to him, nor how tough the treatment they dish out, he always manages to stay on his feet and the ball is normally with him.
The true joy comes from seeing Foden play with a smile on his face. He enjoys playing, entertaining and, crucially, winning with his boyhood club. His receiving of De Bruyne’s pass and run down the inside left channel was instrumental in City’s opener which De Bruyne finished off.
Foden is being given more and more minutes by Guardiola and that tells through the relationships that the City attacker is starting to develop with team-mates aplenty. It was a big call by the City manager to start Foden ahead of Raheem Sterling in this quarter-final but it paid off. Foden is in currently in better form than his countryman.
Bellingham left hard done by
On the opposite side was Bellingham, who had made the move to Dortmund last summer when he departed Birmingham City, at whom he had impressed. Still only 17 years old, the English midfielder has already been given his national team debut and is likely to be a part of Gareth Southgate’s squad for this summer’s European Championship.
Such rewards are testament to how Bellingham applies himself. In fact, Southgate made a point of saying just as much during the recent international break; the England manager was hugely impressed with how the young midfielder carried himself both on and off the pitch when with the national squad.
Bellingham’s quality was evident on Tuesday evening. He played a vital role in the Dortmund midfield, which was given the unenviable task of trying to offset City’s fluid and creative attacking set-up. His passing was also important when the visitors regained the ball and his passing accuracy was 88 per cent.
Bellingham should have matched Foden and appeared on the scoreboard himself. He scored a perfectly legitimate goal when he disposed Ederson after the City goalkeeper had dallied on the edge of his area. The referee, who was far from perfect throughout the game, struck the goal off for an alleged foul by the Dortmund midfielder, but there was nothing of the sort.
That goal would not only have been a moment of great achievement for Bellingham but also might have proved an important goal in the context of this tie. It is only when the return leg reaches its climax next week that the true extent of the disservice will be revealed.
Haaland showed glimpses of his worth
The displays provided by Foden and Bellingham thus somewhat stole the spotlight from Haaland, who was meant to take centre-stage. The Dortmund striker has been linked with various clubs for a summer move, City included, and this tie could be interpreted as an audition for both parties.
On Haaland’s part, he teed-up Marco Reus for Dortmund’s second-half equaliser with a neat flick and also should have scored himself when he proved too strong for Ruben Dias but couldn’t get the ball out from under his feet as Ederson arrived to smother the chance at the start of the second half.
In truth, the most coveted footballer at the moment was less effective than normal. Before this game he had scored 33 goals in 32 matches for Dortmund this season and in his short career this far has netted 20 goals in 14 Champions League games. Credit must be given to Dias and John Stones who dealt reasonably well with the threat of the 6ft 4in striker whose presence loomed large.
For City, there was plenty from Haaland’s display to whet the appetite. But, perhaps in a slightly mischievous move, Guardiola started without a recognised striker in this game. He deployed four No.10s in what was a fluid 4-2-3-1 system. Was it a cry for help, in that City desperately need a striker this summer, especially with Sergio Aguero leaving, or was it a two-fingered gesture, showing that City can be just as lethal without a proper striker.
Either way, City just about had the edge in this match. When it came to the youngsters talent contest, Foden was best in class and left with the prize.