RB Leipzig 2-1 Manchester City
Manchester City ended their Champions League group stage with an unhealthy splutter in an empty stadium in Leipzig.
And the decision to play the strongest team available from his trimmed squad backfired on Pep Guardiola as Kyle Walker was sent off for a frustrated hack late in the game.
That means Walker will be unavailable for the first leg of the last-16 tie, and possibly more, depending on how the disciplinary body views his stupid challenge.
The Blues had stand-in keeper Zack Steffen to thank for keeping Leipzig down to two goals in the first hour, as Dominik Szoboszlai and Andre Silva finally beat the USA international;’s resistance.
Riyad Mahrez headed the Blues back into contention but City were flat and uninspired all night after Guardiola fielded a team composed of players who needed minutes after recovery from injury or illness, or simply because they have not been in the team.
It all meant little, with City already assured of top spot, and RB Leipzig heading into the Europa League as Club Brugge were leaking goals at Paris St Germain.
But Guardiola discovered little from the game, other than that several of his stars are some way short of being at the top of their game – and just how important Joao Cancelo, Rodri and Bernardo Silva, all watching at home in Manchester, have become.
There are ways of enlivening a dead-rubber game but none of them were met for this game.
Pep Guardiola set the tone by picking the strongest team available to him, with Rodri, Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo left in Manchester and Gabriel Jesus injured.
It is laudable in many ways – it shows respect for the competition, in the way he also refuses to compromise in domestic cup ties, even against lower-division teams.
There is also the matter of a couple of million in prize money attached to every victory, not to be sniffed at.
And it is true to say that most of the players he picked – Zack Steffen, John Stones, Nathan Ake, Aleks Zinchenko, Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden – could all benefit from minutes, for a variety of reasons.
But going into the game, City had nothing to play for – they had already secured top spot in the group by beating Paris St Germain last time.
With PSG quickly rattling in three goals against Club Brugge in the other game, Leipzig’s interest in the game could also have waned – although they had the added incentive of claiming the scalp of one of the European big guns after a poor run that has seen them slump to 11th in the Bundesliga and sack their manager this week.
City fans will have been disappointed to see Cole Palmer and James McAtee on the bench, when it seemed like a perfect opportunity to showcase the academy’s two latest stardust-sprinkled products.
They would have brought a purpose and verve to proceedings that was sadly lacking in the first half.
It was necessary to give under-used players, plus those like De Bruyne and Grealish, who have been coming back from injury and illness, time out on the pitch.
But it meant that City – in their black change strip, were a pale shadow of the white whirlwind that blew through Watford at the weekend.
De Bruyne had shown signs of recovering from the early-season malaise which was a hangover from two nasty injuries in the summer, when he was hit by a positive Covid test.
Guardiola said that the virus tends to leave players “empty” and the Belgium midfielder looked like he was back to square one, in terms of re-setting his passing radar, touch and awareness.
With Fernandinho similarly rusty and Ilkay Gundogan dropping to the same level, the midfield was a vacuum for the Blues against a team that pressed them well and squeezed the spaces between the lines.
The most flabbergasted man in the empty stadium – the game was behind closed doors as German Covid restrictions tighten – might have been Ederson.
After weeks of being a virtual spectator as the Blues have been striding imperiously to win after win, he had every right to be a little jealous as his stand-in Zack Steffen came up with four excellent saves in the opening 45 minutes.
Steffen has to be patient, but when he comes in and has so much to do, maybe it was worth it.
He was down smartly at his near post to beat away Konrad Laimer’s snap-shot from an angle, and then dashed off his line to dive at Andre Silva’s feet before Dominik Szoboszlai finally beat him.
The City back four were flat and disorganised as Szoboszlai raced clear, with Kyle Walker hesitant to cover and John Stones not aware of what was happening over his shoulder.
The expected City response never truly materialised, and it was Steffen who again took the starring role, denying Silva and then Emil Forsberg as Leipzig grew in confidence.
Too many Blues were under-cooked, below-par or struggling to find motivation, and once they had set that tone, it was hard to raise it.
Guardiola tried by replacing the misfiring Phil Foden – maybe still feeling the effects of his recent injury – with the directness and freshness of Raheem Sterling.
Sterling went to the left, but within ten minutes, Guardiola was on the touchline, gesticulating for him to swap roles with Jack Grealish, who was virtually anonymous in the false nine role in which he played well enough, but missed a handful of chances, at Watford on Saturday.