Defending went out the window, Pep Guardiola’s 100% record at Manchester City followed it, but how could anyone walk away from this game without a smile on their face? For City this 3-3 draw may have been two points lost, but for the fans an exhilarating viewing experience gained. For Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic and their barmy, amazing following, proof that in their giant green bouncy castle they can go toe to toe with anyone.
Celtic Park bounced like an MDMA fueled underground warehouse on Wednesday evening. The noise inside the 60,000 capacity stadium was thunderous, deafening, frightening. If we’re being brutally honest, the Scots have one of the weakest squads in the competition, but with that noise driving them into every tackle, every bolt into the penalty area, they’ll give anyone a game in Glasgow. From minute one City did not look themselves.
Rodgers deserves credit, too. Guardiola’s team have not been hounded like that this season. Give his team time on the ball and they’ll rip you apart. Harry them, as the excellent Kieran Tierney and James Forrest did here, and they’ll be forced into mistakes. It may be a little too early to suggest that Celtic have uncovered the blueprint on how to stifle this brilliant City team – Guardiola is a coach with too many tricks up his sleeve to allow counter-pressing to become a recurring problem for his side – but the result will certainly encourage Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino whose notoriously tenacious outfit host the Blues this weekend.
Lining up with Aleksandar Kolarov and Nicolás Otamendi in the centre of defence, City’s back line lacked height and, more significantly, the presence of a proper centre-half. And as Moussa Dembélé, completing a well-worked free-kick routine, tapped in after just two minutes, it turned out we’d walked into a lion’s den bollock naked. Sat on the bench, possibly wondering like the rest of us why the hell he wasn’t on the pitch, was John Stones. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, although I doubt anyone truly believed Kolarov would go the season without having an absolute shocker along the way. Well here was his first of the term, and with him having such a bad time, even Kolo Touré thought he’d have a go at taking advantage. Fortunately for City, Claudio Bravo was on hand to parry away his short range effort just moments after Celtic had taken the lead. The hosts were on fire.
Great football, Pep, but how do your team react to going behind? Of course, in Pep’s first 10 games as manager this was an assignment City had not yet been tasked with, and grappling our way back into this tie against the roar of Celtic Park would be a true test of character. On the 12 minute mark, Fernandinho’s goal signaled that there’s resilience as well as talent in this squad.
But back came Celtic, riding on the crest of that Celtic Park thunder, crashing into City’s shores. Struggling in the centre of midfielder were Fernandinho and İlkay Gündoğan, the game passing them by and onto our right-flank where the 19-year-old Tierney was playing with the passion of a lad who had supported the Bhoys his whole life. Skipping down the wing, the full-back fired into the box and saw his low cross deflect in off Raheem Sterling.
And again City responded, this time propelled by the frustration of a man with an own-goal to his name. Accepting a perfectly-weighted pass from Silva in the penalty area, the 21-year-old found himself in prime clatter country yet did remarkably well to turn Craig Gordon and slot in City’s equaliser. In front of goal, and now with 5 of them to his name in all competitions, Sterling is beginning to resemble the expert finisher he was always criticised for not being.
The half-time whistle allowed a gasp of air and City would surely receive the rollicking they deserved. Stones and Fernando would have been the most obvious changes at the break with the side in desperate need of some level-headedness at the back and an extra man in midfield, but perhaps Guardiola felt that all the starting eleven he put out needed were a few angry words down the ear. Everyone except Celtic expected Guardiola’s men to grip this rollercoaster encounter by the neck.
But the energy levels of the sprightly SPL leaders showed no sign of depletion. Starting the second half as they had the first, Dembélé capitalised on a poor piece of control from Kolarov and sent an acrobatic finish into the corner of the goal. Could City respond for a third time? You bet they could. An Agüero shot, a Gordon save, a Nolito rebound. 3-3. Mental.
Many would have expected a signficantly more disgruntled post-match interview from perfectionist Guardiola, but even he seemed to enjoy this classic. “Thinking about the performance, how they fight, how they tried until the end to win the game, it doesn’t matter about the mistakes, I was so satisfied. We scored three goals away in Europe and created three or four [more] clear chances. That’s the best way to learn. In Europe you can’t concede because they [the opposition] are a machine, they are there to punish you.”
When the draw for Champions League Group C was made at the end of August, City would have looked to the two fixtures against Celtic as two must win games, especially with the best team in the world Barcelona and a tricky Borussia Mönchengladbach occupying the two other spaces. Paper says City should have won this game, Celtic’s relentless pressing and the atmosphere their supporters created says City did well to get a point on Wednesday night. Nevertheless, in this tournament where football is so often not the winner, maybe we should just sit back and be thankful that we got to witness one of the best games Europe will see for a good few years.