It was Champions League football but not as Pep Guardiola has come to know it

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola

It is perhaps a measure of how uncomfortable Manchester City still are on the European stage that Pep Guardiola chose life and death imagery in his pre-match assessment.

While relaxed insouciance is what the manager generally aims for, he hardly struck that tone when observing Monaco had “killers” in the box in Radamel Falcao and Valère Germain, or noting glumly that critics would “kill” his City side if they did not succeed.

This is almost certainly not the can-do, positive approach City thought they would be getting when employing the former coach of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, although it is possible Guardiola was merely trying to lull his opponents into a false sense of superiority. His team seemed to be doing that on the pitch to an extent as well, passing the ball backwards more than usual, with Willy Caballero and John Stones in particular giving the impression that they did not really want it, although when City took the lead midway through the first half it appeared they knew what they were doing.

Nothing, it turned out could have been further from the truth. Guardiola’s touchline Basil Fawlty impersonations are now well known, so it would not be an exaggeration to say the City manager was literally hopping mad minutes later when Caballero launched an optimistic clearance towards a touchline instead of playing a simpler pass to a closer team‑mate. By the time Fabinho intercepted, played a one-two with Bernardo Silva, then crossed for Falcao to look every inch a cold-eyed killer from the six-yard line, Guardiola had turned away from the action with his hands over his eyes.

He probably thought he would not see anything worse all night, in which case he had another think coming. This is City, after all, and although the home side could consider themselves unlucky when Sergio Agüero was booked for a dive when Danijel Subasic’s sprawling challenge ought to have resulted in a penalty – Guardiola’s eyes out on stalks now as he made gestures of disbelief to the fourth official – there was simply no excuse for the slack defending at a free-kick that resulted in Monaco taking the lead. The exciting Kylian Mbappé had already shown a silky touch and smooth acceleration on a couple of occasions in open play, and from a dead-ball situation he had no trouble in stealing a march on Nicolás Otamendi and beating Caballero with a first-time finish.

So once again City found themselves in a catch-up situation, not exactly unfamiliar territory when in Europe. In truth, they were slightly lucky to be only a goal down at the interval. Mbappé had shot narrowly over and Falcao hit the side netting before the break, although what really impressed was the panache Benjamin Mendy showed in twice beating Kevin De Bruyne or the coolness Mbappé demonstrated in whisking past Otamendi once, then standing the defender up and doing it again.

If City were unlucky with the Agüero non-penalty, when Subasic should really have been more sternly punished for forcing the striker to either vault him or collide with him, they were reprieved when Falcao proved less than deadly from the spot in the second half. Caballero came to his side’s rescue there, even if Falcao’s effort lacked conviction, just as Subasic was entirely to blame when Agüero’s unremarkable shot went straight through him for City’s equaliser.

Yet just as the Etihad Stadium was enjoying the novelty of a visiting goalkeeper being put under unwelcome scrutiny, it was forced to confront the reality that in open play at least Falcao really is a reinvigorated striker these days. It would be impossible to imagine the unhappy figure who endured a miserable season at Old Trafford scoring the sort of goal that briefly put Monaco back in front – but two years on Falcao is no ghostly revenant. He looked very much alive and well in showing the strength to hold off Stones, the technique to find space for a shot and the composure to dink the ball cheekily over Caballero for a goal of memorable quality.

In the end, after two goals from corners had swung the game the home side’s way, it was hard to decide how much praise City actually deserved. Yes, they had made life difficult for themselves, City generally do on these occasions. On the other hand, they had accounted for an extremely able and confident side, the highest scorers in Europe no less, and shown the character to come twice from behind in doing so. By the time Leroy Sané had extended the lead to a margin that has a chance of surviving a trip to the Stade Louis II, it was possible to agree with the giddy crowd that only City can offer this sort of excitement, a point underlined when Caballero had to make a late save to deny Falcao a hat-trick.

This was Champions League football – but not as Guardiola knows it. He might become used to it eventually, although whether he will ever enjoy it is another matter. While football is rarely mistaken for anything as serious as life and death here, there is every chance you might die laughing.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Paul Wilson at the Etihad Stadium, for The Guardian on Tuesday 21st February 2017 23.34 Europe/London

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