All that matters is the win, of course, but this was a curious Manchester City display studded with lax marking and concentration. Pep Guardiola’s side ended by returning an 18th unbeaten group game – 14 victories in the run – but he will surely upbraid his charges for the slipshod fare they produced.
With Paris Saint-German up next, City cannot afford a repeat against Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and company, who will surely watch the film of this and smell blood. Guardiola’s men were able to react each time they conceded here but are bound to find it trickier to do so against Mauricio Pochettino’s aristocrats.
City’s opening group game results read five wins, four losses and a draw with only one of the reverses under Guardiola – a 1-0 defeat to Lyon, in 2018, though the manager served a touchline ban so his assistant, Mikel Arteta, was in charge for the 90 minutes.
There seemed scant chance of City being troubled by RB Leipzig whose desultory start to the season featured a solitary victory from four Bundesliga matches. From a match-day squad missing John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, whose fitness prevented them training on Tuesday, Guardiola’s centre-back pairing was Nathan Aké and Rúben Dias, captain on the night, with Ferran Torres again the striker, Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish in support, with Kevin De Bruyne, back from injury, the chief orchestrator.
After Guardiola urged his team to go “one step further” than last season’s losing final, an initial foray had De Bruyne and Torres interlinking before the former’s cross was gathered by Peter Gulacsi. Here the Spaniard matched the Belgian’s quickness of thought in an instant return pass that took De Bruyne by surprise and was a bright augury for City. So too was Grealish’s opening contribution as a Champions League debutant, the reverse flip into Torres oozing schemer’s guile and had the No 21 racing clear before being flagged offside.
Leipzig were already in a wrestle for decent ball and territory. A Dani Olmo shot he ballooned over was about the “best” they could conjure, as City next took the lead. This was presaged by a Mahrez ball floated to the far post from the right. It was cleared for a corner – by Nordi Mukiele – Grealish pinged the delivery in and Aké rose to beat two defenders and Gulacsi with a powerhouse header.
The limit of Guardiola’s celebration was a soft fist pump but a lead inside 20 minutes will have delighted him. So, too, the hunger to drive forward again instantly, Mahrez again ghosting into position to pull the trigger, this time on a curving effort that went wide. Grealish’s next contributions were a hail mary of a corner and the drawing of a foul by an already frustrated Christopher Nkunku. The emotion was about to permeate all of Leipzig when a hapless Mukiele headed De Bruyne’s skidding delivery past Gulacsi for City’s second.
To characterise mildly: here was the very last thing the Germans needed and at this juncture a serious trouncing seemed possible. Only an element usually scarce under Guardiola might allow them back into the contest – complacency from their hosts.
Surprisingly, there was precisely this. As the break neared Olmo was allowed to play a pass left, Emile Forsberg lifted the cross in, Mukiele headed back to Nkunku and he beat Ederson.
City, though, ended the half in close to total control. A Torres header hit Lukas Klostermann’s upper arm and after VAR ordered Serdar Gozubuyuk to consult the pitch-side monitor the referee awarded the penalty. Mahrez smashed this in for a 3-1 lead and the visitors were again remote contenders to take anything from the contest.
Calamity and farce nearly befell Gulacsi when careering along the turf as Torres bore down on his goal, the keeper finally managing to regain balance and save the striker’s weak shot. Torres would soon rue this because by 50 minutes Nkunku had a second: in trying to make a tackle De Bruyne tripped over Gozubuyuk and thus Olmo could receive, then chip between Dias and Aké too easily for Nkunku to score again.
This was alarming defending and had Jesse Marsch believing his team might actually prosper. Who could blame him? City had conceded two loose goals and there was a sniff of an upset.
Grealish, though, had another idea and this was to illustrate why he cost £100m. Collecting on the left, a shoulder dip left Tyler Adams a statue, before the wide man accelerated on and curled sweetly in to make it 4-2.
Still, Guardiola remained concerned in his usual technical area position, meting out an unadulterated rollicking to Mahrez the Algerian had no choice but to accept.
City also had to swallow Nkunku clinching a hat-trick, hammering in Yussuf Poulsen’s pass, to leave Guardiola despairing. Yet this ding-dong affair had an eighth strike two minutes later when a João Cancelo piledriver made it 5-3 to City.
An incident-rich evening next had Angeliño, once of this parish, receiving a second yellow so Leipzig navigated the closing 10 minutes a player light. And, by the end, the substitute, Gabriel Jesus had made the margin emphatic.