On 21 February 2017, the world bore witness to the birth of a generational talent and the crescendo of the most exciting team in Europe.
All we knew at the time was that Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City had scraped past a group of children in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16, narrowly avoiding a humiliating home defeat to this precocious Monaco side in a 5-3 victory.
Two weeks later of course, his stars would suffer that ultimate humiliation, crashing out of the European competition on away goals after a 6-6 draw on aggregate. At that moment, it was an embarrassing failure.
The passing of time has been kind to Guardiola and Man City, however, and we now look back at this Monaco team as one of the best collections of starlets in recent history. But just how did it all go down on that crazy night in Manchester?
This was the beginning of Guardiola’s reign in England, and what we can say for sure is that he didn’t have the players at his disposal which he would have liked. That became apparent soon after, when he spent about £500m on full backs. For now though, the Citizens had to make do with Willy Caballero between the sticks, after Pep’s punt on Claudio Bravo did not work out.
John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi sat in the heart of their defence, with Bacary Sagna and Fernandinho in the full-back positions. What’s that? Fernandinho being played out of position? Shock.
Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane occupied the wide areas, while Yaya Toure, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva sat in the middle of the park. A certain Sergio Aguero led the line from the front. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
As for Monaco, Danijel Subasic stood between the posts, with Kamil Glik and Andrea Raggi playing in front of the Croatian international. In the full-back roles, Djibril Sidibé was tasked with defending Monaco’s right flank, while a young and energetic Benjamin Mendy marshalled the left. I wonder where he’ll end up in the future…
In the heart of the midfield, Monaco boasted two defensive-minded stars in Fabinho and Tiemoue Bakayoko, while Thomas Lemar played just behind the main striker. That focal point was Radamel Falcao, one of Europe’s most prolific forwards.
Out wide, a fresh-faced Bernardo Silva patrolled the right flank, and coach Leonardo Jardim took a gamble to hand a first Champions League start to unknown entity and teenage wonderkid Kylian Mbappe. It’s a shame he’s not gone on to repay his former coach’s faith, eh?
The game began at a frenetic pace, and Man City were forced to survive a couple of nervy scares in the opening minutes. Mendy stung Caballero’s palms with a driven shot from the left-hand side of the penalty area, and Glik headed wide when completely unmarked from a corner.
Despite the visitors’ surprise threat, it was the Citizens who drew first blood. Sane wriggled through a couple of challenges and after temporarily losing control of the ball, he was handed back possession by Silva. The German winger fizzed a delivery across the six-yard box, and Sterling was on hand to tap home from close range. Advantage Man City.
That lead lasted only six minutes, however, as just after the half-hour mark, Monaco came roaring back. Fabinho collected the ball out on the right wing, and whipped a delicious cross into the box, just begging to be attacked. Luckily, Falcao was primed to throw himself at the ball and plant a diving header into the corner of the net.
Aguero thought he had done enough to win a penalty when he was seemingly brought down in the area a couple of minutes later, but the referee decided he had tried to buy the spot-kick, booking the Argentine for simulation. Harsh.
Mbappe then gave the hosts a serious warning shot, escaping the defence’s attention and firing a vicious strike at goal which missed the underside of the crossbar by a yard or so. Keep an eye on him though, lads.
Five minutes later, he was at it again – and this time, he was not in a forgiving mood. Mbappe latched onto a long ball over the top of the backline, raced beyond his marker and drilled the ball past Caballero without a moment’s hesitation.
That goal was his first in European competition, and he became the second youngest scoring Frenchman in Champions League history, too. Both teams had chances to find the target again before the half-time whistle, but they entered the dressing rooms with Monaco holding a precious 2-1 lead.
The second half started exactly as the first ended – in pandemonium. Les Monegasques were gifted the opportunity to extend their lead on 47 minutes, after Otamendi brought down his man in the penalty area. But Falcao fluffed his lines on this occasion, placing the ball tamely to Caballero’s left. The shot-stopper guessed the right way, keeping his side in the game.
Man City capitalised on that turning point on 57 minutes, as Aguero snuck in behind the Monaco defence and fired a shot towards goal. Subasic somehow allowed the limp effort to slip through his body, and the hosts were level.
All that hard work was undone three minutes later though, when Falcao schooled Stones in the art of attacking strength and guile, beating his marker all ends up before saucily chipping the ball over Caballero and into the net. Disaster for the hosts.
Guardiola’s men dug deep however, and they restored parity on 70 minutes. A corner swung into the box, and Aguero was loitering to meet the ball on the full and volley it beyond Subasic. Six minutes later, they were at it again with another set piece. An in-swinger travelled all the way to the back post, where Stones was waiting to snake out a boot and prod the ball over the line. 4-3.
City put some daylight between themselves and their relentless visitors on 82 minutes, when Aguero beat the offside trap and squared the ball to Sane, who did the honours to end the scoring on a crazy night of European football.
As we now know, there was a reason why Man City failed to overcome Monaco in the second leg: this team was packed with future stars. Les Monegasques won the second leg 3-1, qualifying for the quarter-finals on away goals.
There, they would hammer Borussia Dortmund 6-3 over two legs, before finally meeting their match in Juventus in the semi-finals. They did lift the Ligue 1 title for the first time since 2000, however, and reached two domestic cup finals, only to lose to Paris Saint-Germain on both occasions.
As for the Citizens, they ended their first season under Guardiola trophy-less, finishing third in the league and exiting both domestic competitions prematurely. He’d get it right eventually though.